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Review: With 'Year of the Dog,' artist Joakim Ojanen crafts imaginary creatures full of real drama

Review: With 'Year of the Dog,' artist Joakim Ojanen crafts imaginary creatures full of real drama
“Standing Blue Raku Dog” by Joakim Ojanen, 2018, glazed ceramic, 6.5 inches by 6 inches by 3 inches, at the Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica. (Joakim Ojanen and Richard Heller Gallery)

The characters in “Year of the Dog,” Joakim Ojanen’s second solo show in the United States, are more diverse than those that appeared in the Swedish artists’ solo debut two years ago, also at Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica.

Made of clay, bronze, paint and charcoal, Ojanen’s menagerie of sentient critters is also more fantastic: Less realistic and more cartoon, they suggest humans are most humane when we’re in touch with our animal selves.

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Edenic fantasies are nowhere to be found in the jam-packed exhibition, which includes seven freestanding figures, 26 tabletop sculptures, seven oils on canvas and 20 charcoal drawings. Also absent are the spectacular theatrics of nature programs, in which fierce predators chase down weaker creatures and feast on their flesh.

Installation view of Joakim Ojanen's “Year of the Dog” exhibition at Richard Heller Gallery.
Installation view of Joakim Ojanen's “Year of the Dog” exhibition at Richard Heller Gallery. (Joakim Ojanen and Richard Heller Gallery)

Instead, Ojanen’s animals, imaginary and otherwise, have the presence of pets: vulnerable beasts people take care of simply because it feels good to do so.

His art is all about relationships. Those between boys and dogs predominate. But those between kids and their inner lives also take shape. The same goes for relationships between kids and grown-ups, individuals and stereotypes, one’s self-image and reality.

Many of Ojanen’s sculptures focus on kids lost in thought, their introspective reveries conveyed by their body language as well as their facial features, which include mouths that resemble the bills of ducks, eyes that dangle — and wag — like the tails of dogs, and cheeks so rosy they appear to have taken on lives of their own.

Many of the kids’ noses put Pinocchio’s to shame. Recalling the face masks of pint-size football helmets, they fail to protect the children from the jeers of bullies, much less the brutality of fistfights. Tears take the shape of tiny neckties or decorative ribbons hanging from their faces like stalactites, or little rivers that never run dry.

"Green Head With Flexural Eyes and Hat on Fleek" by Joakim Ojanen, 2018, glazed ceramic, 17 inches by 12 inches by 12 inches.
"Green Head With Flexural Eyes and Hat on Fleek" by Joakim Ojanen, 2018, glazed ceramic, 17 inches by 12 inches by 12 inches. (Joakim Ojanen and Richard Heller Gallery)

Ojanen’s paintings could be the mongrel offspring of a picture by Peter Saul and an episode of “The Simpsons.” The crudeness intensifies their insight, often brilliantly.

His black-and-white drawings are even better. Boundaries between creatures large and small dissolve into a moving stew of reciprocal interactivity. The comic drama that unfolds in “The Year of the Dog” packs a punch — and even more moral authority.

Richard Heller Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. Through Aug. 11; closed Sundays and Mondays. (310) 453-9191, www.richardhellergallery.com

“16.05.2018” by Joakim Ojanen, 2018, charcoal on paper, 24 inches by 18 inches, framed.
“16.05.2018” by Joakim Ojanen, 2018, charcoal on paper, 24 inches by 18 inches, framed. (Joakim Ojanen and Richard Heller Gallery)
"Frowny Past, Naive Future” by Joakim Ojanen, 2018, oil on canvas, 45 inches by 39 inches.
"Frowny Past, Naive Future” by Joakim Ojanen, 2018, oil on canvas, 45 inches by 39 inches. (Joakim Ojanen and Richard Heller Gallery)
“White Head Overtaken by Octopus Tweenies” by Joakim Ojanen, 2018, 17 inches by 11 inches by 10 inches.
“White Head Overtaken by Octopus Tweenies” by Joakim Ojanen, 2018, 17 inches by 11 inches by 10 inches. (Joakim Ojanen and Richard Heller Gallery)
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