At first glance, the vibrant colours and often comically ambiguous appearance of Joakim Ojanen’s works have the capacity to deceive their audience. It’s all too easy to see them as amusing novelty ornaments. However, whilst humour is an important element of the work, one can only feel the true emotional reesonance of these creatures if they dare to stare through their droopy eyes, and into their tortured souls. These humanoid figures remind one of the sad clown paradox and evoke a sense of seemingly unsourced compassion. In light of his current exhibition at The Hole NYC, on display until the end of 2021, we sat down with Joakim to find out what drives his work and where it might be headed.
Could you please give our readers a brief introduction to your work?
I have always had a hard time explaining my work in words. I would rather just show images of it and let the work speak for itself when someone asks me. It depends so much on who you are talking with and what background and references they have when they try to imagine what my work looks like. So it’s always going to be hard for me to find the right words. Images are easier, my language is visual so why try to translate it?
Your latest show The Part You Throw Away is on display at The Hole in New York City until December 31. The title feels somewhat melancholic. Did you devise it in response to the completed body of art? Or was it a starting point for the project?
I think almost all the work was made when I came up with the title for the show. I stumbled upon a Tom Waits song with the same title and felt it worked really well together with the feeling of my work, so I just borrowed it and it took straight off.
This show seems to be more abstract than some of your previous works, with the actual physical appearances of many of the characters increasingly hard to define. What prompted this shift?
My work is steadily evolving. Usually when I’ve just finished a show I have the feeling that if I just had a little more time I’d know exactly what piece I want to make next. I think that's because I work so intensely in the end that I establish a great flow. So when I start on my next show the first piece is the piece that should have been the last from the previous show, and I just keep going from there.
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I'm With You On This One!, 2021 - Image courtesy of Västerås Konstmuseum.
My first introduction to your work was on the cover of one of my favourite hip-hop albums in recent years, Burd by Wilma Vritra. How did this opportunity come about?
Wilma Archer contacted me and told me he really liked my work and wanted me to do a cover. I think we emailed back and forth a little bit and after a while he got back to me and sent the album. I loved it and was really happy they wanted to use one of my paintings. I think they picked this one together.
Following on from that, Pyramid Vritra (one half of Wilma Vritra) was one of the original members of the infamous music collective Odd Future. Your own clothing style, and that of your characters is somewhat reminiscent of the items made by Odd Future, and affiliate brands such as Golf Wang. Do you think this scene has influenced the aesthetics of your work?
I've been listening to their music and like it a lot but I don’t think their style influenced my work that I know of (laughs). But I have always been a big fan of alternative underground pop culture and I think that in general has influenced my style a lot.
In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned a reluctance to collaborate with other artists, owing to your own inability to compromise. Do you think this is a blessing or a curse?
In the beginning I definitely thought it was a curse. I’d always pictured myself as being part of a duo doing creative projects together. I think that maybe it was an idea that if I was doing it together with someone else it would be more justified or something, and also a good way to help each other to push forward. But since I want it my way, in the end, I just don’t think I'm a good artist partner and I don’t have the feeling that I need to justify the work I'm making any longer. Maybe I wouldn't say it's a blessing, but I think doing it by myself is the only way for me and I'm pretty happy working that way.
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Welcome To The World, We Gonna Have A Blast!, 2021 - Image courtesy of Västerås Konstmuseum.
I noticed in a photoshoot at your studio that there was a book about the Chicago Imagists on the shelf. Whilst your work isn’t incredibly aesthetically similar to theirs, the spirit of defying convention with a childlike indifference strikes me as something you have in common. Was the movement a big inspiration for you?
I started learning about them when I was in art school and in Sweden around that time (2009 - 2010 or something) character-based figurative work wasn't a thing at all. So everything that had a feeling or inspiration from underground comics or weird illustrations in the art scene was really interesting for me.
I imagine you must build up a rather strong affinity towards these characters that you create. Do you ever speak to any of them?
I get that question a lot. And yes I think when the pieces are getting close to finished we have a little conversation before I start on the next one. I think it's a way for me to get to know them a little bit and kind of important too.
You and your brother have markedly different styles, but from your previous interviews it seems you were quite close and had similar upbringings. Why do you think your work has taken such different stylistic paths?
I think we just had to take different paths into the art scene. He is more interested in art history and studied painting and started younger and earlier than me. I came more from animation and illustration into the art scene. He's also five years older than me and I think I felt like I was intruding in his area and never wanted to copy him.
Our names are similar (his name is Jakob and when both names start with a J it seems to be confusing for some) so we get mixed up a lot of times. I'm really happy our works are so different otherwise it would be a mess haha.
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A Nice Day To Be Outside, 2021 - Image courtesy of Västerås Konstmuseum.
Västerås Konstmuseum referred to you as one of Sweden’s most successful living artists. Given your work’s deviation from many of the conventions of ‘high art,’ did you ever imagine you’d garner such acclaim?
No, it's all pretty crazy when I think about that. I never thought I would be able to do this full time. And now I'm going around the world doing exhibitions – it’s still hard for me to take in.
What do you think you’d be doing with your life if you weren’t an artist? Or is such a scenario unimaginable?
I think I ended up as an artist because it's probably the work that fits me the best. I'm a bit of a control freak and like to make most decisions myself. I also had a hard time putting in a lot of my energy and doing my best if I do it for a company I don’t care too much about. When I do something I love it's a different thing. I’ve always had a need and urge to be creative. If I didn't have a creative job I would probably do something creative during nights and weekends and save some energy during work for that.
You’ve spoken before about a consistency in your style, and slow evolution rather than radical jumps. Where do you see your work going in say 5 or 10 years?
One thing that I've started to explore is bigger sculptures, and I think I’ll continue to do so. I already have some outdoor sculptures in the pipeline that I'm excited to work on.
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