Starstruck

Art-world luminary Jun Kaneko shows off at Carson-Masuoka.

"Omaha's the best place not to get disturbed too much," he further explains, "and so I have the chance to focus on my work without interruptions. If someone comes to Omaha, they're serious about my work. It screens out the semi-serious." (Thank goodness Carson-Masuoka spared us the trip to Nebraska so that at least those of us in Denver -- serious and semi-serious alike -- could catch Kaneko's marvelous show.)

The Kaneko exhibit begins with one of his famous and classic "Dango" sculptures, "Untitled (Dango, 02-08-14)," which is installed in the front window. A dango is a Japanese dumpling, and Kaneko says this sculpture's soft, mounded shapes are reminiscent of them. It is an organic, monolithic figure that stands about six feet tall and is about thirty inches wide; its tapered-in bottom and rounded top are also suggestive of the human form.

This wonderful piece is finely modeled and meticulously finished with a variety of expertly applied glazes. The base color is a vaporous dove gray, on top of which are deep-blue bands in different widths that run horizontally. On top of those are vertical pinstripes in red, blue, yellow, lavender and other bright hues. The horizontal bands are set off by the vertical pinstripes; taken together, the result is a plaid, one of several patterns seen in Kaneko's work. "A repetition of similar marks makes patterns, and when I make repeated marks, the spaces between the marks become very important to me," Kaneko says. The relationship of the mark to the empty space is like the one between light and dark, and is thus a key concept in aesthetics.

"Untitled (Dango 02-08-14)," by Jun Kaneko, glazed ceramic.
"Untitled (Dango 02-08-14)," by Jun Kaneko, glazed ceramic.
"Untitled (Dango 02-08-12)," glazed ceramic.
"Untitled (Dango 02-08-12)," glazed ceramic.

To some extent, plaid is easy to pull off as long as a regular rhythm is established, but polka dots, as seen in the fantastic "Untitled (Dango, 02-08-12)," must be harder to do. Nonetheless, it's a pattern Kaneko uses often. "I don't know why I do polka dots," he says. "It's a question I have never been asked."

This polka dot "Dango" in the main gallery is similar to the striped one in the window, but astoundingly, at seven feet, is even larger. (The largest of Kaneko's "Dangos" is more than eleven feet tall.) The dots are done in black on a creamy white ground, making the piece a real eye-catcher. I literally froze in my tracks when I came upon it. The all-over pattern of the dots would seem to be superficially at odds with the simplicity of the conventionalized figural shape, but somehow Kaneko reconciles them and pulls off the piece.

Also in the "Dango" series are floor sculptures, including another black-on-white polka-dot piece. The reference to the figure is vague in these sculptures, and they look more like the dumplings for which the series is named. That's true also for a trio of wall-mounted chargers that are closely related to the "Dango" sculptures. The ovoid chargers, with their soft contours, are completely covered with patterns.

In a decidedly different vein are the rectangular wall plaques. Whereas the chargers are sculptural -- if not exactly sculpture -- the plaques are essentially glazed versions of abstract paintings. For a matching pair of plaques hanging on the back wall, Kaneko started with a deep-blue ground, applied a couple of brush strokes in a foamy white and then spattered the top with light blue. The resulting plaques are abstract-expressionist and, strangely enough, the only things in the show that reflect the influence of Japanese art. In a way, they resemble Japanese brush painting and calligraphy. (Kaneko returned only occasionally to Japan, and even though he has a studio there, his work is more a part of American rather than Japanese art.)

The show at Carson-Masuoka also features Kaneko's paintings on canvas and monotypes on paper. Like the three-dimensional clay sculptures, the two-dimensional pieces refer alternately to minimalism and abstract expressionism.

This unlikely combination of sources is easy to see in the majestic, mural-sized acrylic-on-canvas "Untitled (P-97-12-06)," which is completely covered with vertical stripes done in bands of thickly applied pigments. The handling of the paint in heavy expressionist daubs is juxtaposed with the hard edges of the stripes; together they strike just the right post-minimalist note.

Compositionally, the long, low panel is divided in half, with a predominantly dark passage on the left and a light one on the right. Perhaps the strongest aspect of the painting is the palette. The colors Kaneko selected are remarkably luminous and include toned-up versions of many shades, though various tints of blue and red dominate.

Kaneko uses vertical stripes for the triptych "Untitled (P-02-11-01)," but with a very different final effect. Each of the panels is a monochrome in one of the primaries, and the stripes, though expressionistically applied in runs, are merely thin skeins, not thick, static globs.

Kaneko's unforgettable work -- especially those out-of-this-world "Dangos" -- is rightly praised for its monumentality, sophistication and stunning beauty. This makes Jun Kaneko a must-see. And though ratings in the forms of sales and viewer response haven't fully come in yet, I'm ready to call it one of the hit shows of this year's art sweeps. As heavy-duty as this season has been so far, that's no small accomplishment.

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