Joakim Ojanen, “Year of the Dog” at Richard Heller Gallery

Joakim Ojanen, Year of the Dog at Richard Heller Gallery. Photo credit: Kristine Schomaker.

Barking Up the Right Tree: Joakim Ojanen – Year of the Dog

at Richard Heller Gallery
Through July 28th


By Genie Davis

Swedish-based artist Joakim Ojanen’s Year of the Dog is somehow both whimsical and unsettling. The ceramic and bronze sculptures are humorous and poignant, characters from children’s books transformed into something dreamy, deeper and richer.

These are life-like images –if life was exactly what Ojanen saw it as. An expansion – or perhaps the next step from – previous bodies of work, his new exhibit, at Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica through July 28th, is alive with emotion, work that both comforts and confronts. It is who we are without thinking we are, firmly rooted in both the human psyche and the animated work that Ojanen has said he loves.

In his colorful ceramic “Boy with Thistle Flower and Apple,” the eyes are distended, awed and eager; flower in one hand, apple in the other. The boy, in his excitement perhaps to retrieve both, is only wearing a single shoe. The pattern on his shirt resembles the charcoal drawings hung on the gallery walls, also by Ojanen. “Boy on Stone with Orange Snake” seems a less jubilant take on childhood. Here the boy not looking forward, those protruding eyes cast down, legs akimbo. He clutches his prize of an orange snake as if wondering what to do with it. The snake could be a stand-in for the vicissitudes of life – having grabbed that slippery thing literally by his hands, what is the boy to make of it, to do with it. What lies ahead?

The bronze “Dog with Flower Hat Having a Hard Time Choosing Path” reflects on the same emotions. Tongue lolling from his gaping, cheerful mouth, the dog is paused, perhaps frozen – and is wearing shoes. He is our doppelganger, or perhaps we are his. If we don’t know where we are going, how does he? What momentous decision is to be embraced or avoided? “Standing Blue Raku Dog,” on the other hand – its luminous sea-colored glazed ceramic drawing the eye, has a sense of purpose. Face upturned, legs in motion, ears flopping, this creature is heading somewhere, and if he or she doesn’t know quite where, it doesn’t matter. The joy is in the journey.

In “Bossy Bird Claimed My Nose in the Park,” this bronze work has a darker cast, not simply from the choice of Ojanen’s medium. From the co-opted nose to the length of that body part, it’s less dreamy boyhood idyll and more the wary fancy of a man who has spent the afternoon or night alone in the park. The bottle behind him forms the idea that ill-conceived revels have led to this state. It’s perhaps a shadowy evocation of Ojanen’s own late mother’s issues with alcohol. With the brightly colored oil painting “Frowny Past, Naïve Future,” the frowning figure of the past rides on the back of the buoyant looking future; an image both amusing, relatable, sad, and hopeful. Our futures may need to be “naïve” to be achievable.

The humor – which is frankly the flip coin of every human angst and tragedy – is strong in each of these works. Yet, so, too is the fragility of life, the melancholy that can beset every soul. In fact, one of the most resonant aspects of this exhibition is the fact that what we are seeing here are not just sculptural works, charcoal drawings, or brightly colored oil-on-canvas art, but fragments of the spirit, the ability to feel joy, sorrow, and to laugh at our circumstances and the condition of being alive.

Richard Heller Gallery
2525 Michigan Ave. #B-5A
Santa Monica, CA 90404
Gallery Hours: Tuesday – Saturday


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