Art

Starstruck

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.

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.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia