Starstruck

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

In television, ratings determine everything. That's why the networks pull out all the stops in programming during sweeps weeks. There are only a few of them during the year, but you know when one comes around, because the entire Godfather series runs on Bravo, MTV airs a Jackass marathon, there's an hour-and-a-half-long Frasier and a two-hour Will & Grace. The trouble with sweeps weeks is that good things wind up being put on at the same time but on different channels.

The art world is similar, and right now is one of those times when the different museums, galleries, art centers and even co-ops simultaneously bring out their big guns. These significant solos and groundbreaking group shows are the art equivalents, so to speak, of that MTV Jackass marathon. The Denver exhibition scene is so thick with solid presentations this year, it's enough to make my head spin while I'm driving all over town in pursuit of them.

Surely at the top of the current lineup of show-stopping exhibits is Jun Kaneko at Carson-Masuoka. The renowned Kaneko is one of the greatest living ceramic artists in the world, and this beautiful show represents his Denver premiere.

"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.

How Carson-Masuoka got such a plum opportunity is a simple tale. Gallery director Mark Masuoka is an old friend and former student and studio assistant of Kaneko's. Fortunately for us, he used this connection to secure the exhibition, which is chock-full of Kaneko's impressive signature ceramic sculptures and supplemented by his related but lesser-known paintings.

Though his paintings may be overshadowed by his ceramics, it turns out that Kaneko started out as a painter. Born in Nagoya, Japan, in 1942, he came to the United States in 1963, and at the time, only painted. "I came to California to check out what was going on with art," Kaneko says. "I started to get excited about clay, and then I didn't do much painting and drawing after that until much later."

In Los Angeles, Kaneko began with private ceramics lessons conducted by Jerry Rothman. Finding he had an affinity for clay, he went on to the Chouinard Art Institute (now called the California Institute of Art) and studied ceramics for a year. "I started to realize I needed a different environment," Kaneko says. "I had made a friend with a collector and teacher, Fred Marer, who knew everyone in California ceramics at that time, and he told me to go up to Berkeley and study with Peter Voulkos." The late Voulkos was one of the greatest ceramic sculptors of the last century, and Kaneko spent a year working with him at the University of California at Berkeley. Marer obviously recognized Kaneko's gift right from the start, and the well-connected collector would continue to counsel the young artist on his career moves for many years.

In 1967, Kaneko went off on his own for a time and built a studio in L.A., but he felt he needed more formal training. "I didn't have any degree, no credits, but I didn't want to go to undergraduate school," Kaneko recalls. Marer again had a suggestion: Talk to Paul Soldner. "Paul Soldner was at Scripps College, and he thought I should go straight to graduate school," he says. Soldner, who has maintained a studio in Basalt, Colorado, for decades, is a household name in the world of ceramics and nearly as highly regarded as Voulkos.

Kaneko eventually did go straight to grad school. "The graduate committee wanted to see some slides, but I didn't have any. At the time, I had a two-person show with Voulkos in L.A., and I said they should see the show instead of slides." Being paired in an exhibit with a living legend of ceramics was a fortuitous situation for a would-be graduate student like Kaneko, and he was easily accepted and entered the program.

The rest, as they say, is history -- the history of ceramics, anyway. Being mentored by the likes of Voulkos and Soldner undeniably gave Kaneko an essential leg up, with fame and fortune all but guaranteed from the start -- if he was any good. And, as we know, he wasn't just good; he was great. Beginning in the 1970s, Kaneko meteorically rose to the highest ranks of ceramic artists. His work is widely published and avidly sought after, appearing in major collections, both public and private.

Kaneko also went on to teach at a variety of institutions, including the Rhode Island School of Design and the Cranbrook Academy in Michigan. But teaching wasn't for him, so he retired from Cranbrook in 1986 to devote himself full-time to the studio. While he was still at Cranbrook, however, he was commissioned for what he calls "a big project" in Omaha, Nebraska, where he ultimately moved.

"I had lived on the East Coast and the West Coast, and Omaha looked pretty good," he says. "Omaha's a quiet town. The people are nice. It's the geographic center of the U.S., so it's easy to go anyplace. And everything is cheap." Kaneko has a huge studio in the Old Market section of the city, where he's establishing a Jun Kaneko Museum.

"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.

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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