The figures in Joakim Ojanen’s “What a Time to Be Alive :(” look like they might be the same guy: a sensitive soul who has suffered plenty of indignities growing up in a cruel world yet still brings an open heart to every experience that comes his way.
Innocence and persistence come together in the Swedish artist’s U.S. solo debut. By turns comic and tragic, his exhibition at Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica features 31 standalone sculptures, 10 oils on canvas and a pair of tableaux, each of which includes boys wise beyond their years and soccer balls, soda cans, beer bottles and cigarettes.
The pitfalls and benefits of vulnerability are Ojanen’s great subject. It takes shape in all his works, which suggest that the capacity for forgiveness is the source of real strength. Toughness, on the contrary, comes across as dimwitted insensitivity. In the eyes of the 31-year-old, the cost of growing up is too high a price to pay for what it takes away from us.
Ojanen’s paintings are whimsical. The seven largest are portraits of creatures that seem to have been modeled on dolls made from scraps of fabric by an eccentric aunt. Their creamy pastels and obsessive-compulsive paint handling give them terrific tactility.
But Ojanen’s ceramic sculptures steal the show. Their expressions are far more complex — more wounded, befuddled, earnest, excited and surprised. Also more melancholic, mischievous, levelheaded and wise. All seem to be old souls trapped inside kids.
Many are simply heads that rest on tabletops. The smallest are no bigger than salt-and-pepper shakers. Packing loaded emotions into a few cubic inches, they show Ojanen at his best.
Others, about the size of a child’s head, similarly surprise in their capacity to elicit empathy. It’s hard to tell if some of Ojanen’s heads are human or canine. His dogs often use their long floppy ears to wipe away tears, to tug at their lowers lips (as if deep in thought) and to cover their eyes (as if they’ve seen enough). Four freestanding mutts are among the happiest — and most well adjusted — of Ojanen’s creatures.
His full-body figures stand about 2½ feet tall. They have the presence of ventriloquist dummies that have run away and are now on their own. Most know they are in over their heads. But the responsibilities of adulthood have not extinguished their passion or joy. They make room for those moments when innocence and wisdom commingle.
Richard Heller Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. Through July 30. Closed Sundays and Mondays. (310) 453-9191, www.richardhellergallery.com
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