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    The Ceramist's Seed
by Victor M. Cassidy
Five-foot Dango
Six-foot Spiral Dango
Ball Bowl
Six-foot Dango
Wall Slab
Wall Slab with Red Line and Square
Horizontal Stripes
This summer, Jun Kaneko exhibited ceramic sculptures and paintings at Klein Art Works in Chicago. He showed six large "dangos," as he calls his trademark round-topped, free-standing two-sided clay works, a smaller dango on a shelf, four ceramic wall pieces, three huge acrylic paintings and two clay pedestal pieces.

The exhibition was a tour de force by an artist of international reputation. Kaneko can do whatever he wants with clay. His decorative patterns have great depth and subtlety. His art ranges from the dignified large dangos to smaller, less formal works to his stripe paintings, which are vibrating visual knockouts.

An artist and an industry
"The bottom line of being a visual artist is to make something visual," says Kaneko. Making art involves the "energy to make the object," which comes from a chain reaction of "intuitive sparks" inside the artist. Craftsmanship helps "construct the ideas."

Curiosity is the mainspring of Kaneko's creativity. He sees something in his work, which piques his curiosity and leads him to experiment. This "creates new ideas and thus brings more questions and more curiosity to the original idea," he says. Technique "follows the idea." He views his inevitable mistakes as learning opportunities.

Kaneko claims that he does art business -- galleries, shows, and commissions -- under protest. But he is an industry now, producing 300 to 500 pieces per year, many at large scale. He has a 38,000 square foot studio in Omaha, Neb., and a second studio in Nagura, Japan, that he built himself. He employs three full-time assistants, uses a programmable controller to fire his kiln and makes detailed technical notes on his art making process.

Galleries all over the world show and sell Kaneko's work at prices that start in four figures and rise into six. He lives on a grand scale, travels widely and devotes many hours to administering his artistic enterprises.

Right place, right time
Born in 1942 in Nagoya, Japan, Jun Kaneko was a mediocre student, who began to draw compulsively because he was miserable in school. His parents recognized his talent, found him art teachers and got him a studio where he spent most of his time painting. When he was just 17, Jun discovered the Spanish painter Antonio Tapies, whose work has influenced him ever since.

In 1963, by pure luck, Kaneko stumbled into the ideal environment for a budding artist. After barely scraping through high school, he flew to Los Angeles intending to study painting, even though he spoke no English. A family friend took Jun to stay with Fred Marer, a mathematics professor who had a huge collection of contemporary ceramics.

Marer soon went away for three months, leaving Kaneko to sit his apartment. The young artist had nothing to do all day but examine hundreds of clay works and struggle to learn English from food labels in grocery stores.

When Marer returned, he took Jun to visit his artist friends -- Peter Voulkos, Kenny Price, Billy Al Bengston, Harry Takemoto, John Mason and others. Jun silently examined the work in these studios, but could not ask questions. He had no idea that he was meeting America's best ceramic artists at a time of great creative ferment.

These experiences led Jun to ceramics. He made vessels at first, then moved quickly into several-foot-tall mixed plate and vessel forms. He would acknowledge later that his background as a painter kept him from thinking in three dimensions. He made two-sided clay pieces with one side becoming his favorite. After six or seven years, he learned to think "more about the whole piece," he says, "like 360 degrees around the piece."

There was "a great distance" between the artist and his material when he was just starting out. Kaneko says he had "vague ideas," but was not close enough to the clay to "rescue" them. Now, after 35 years of "accumulation of experiences," he is much closer to his material and works with greater confidence.

In 1966, Kaneko became studio assistant to Peter Voulkos, who, along with John Mason, became key influences on his art. Kaneko admired the work ethics of these men and "the way they looked at materials." After his time with Voulkos, Kaneko earned an MFA.

Since the early '70s, Kaneko has lived as a successful artist, traveling widely, especially to Japan, where he sometimes lives for months at a time. He taught at the Rhode Island School of Design for several years and later at the Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Kaneko is best known for his dango forms. These sculptures originated when he was an art student, learning to wedge clay -- rolling it into a ball and squeezing out air bubbles so it did not blow up in the kiln.

"I would wedge the clay," he says, "and end up with a round or oval shape. I always liked that shape, but I was too young to leave it alone. I thought art was something you have to think about and work hard at and make something different." Eventually, he fired a round shape, which he nicknamed "dango" after the Japanese word for dumpling.

A "dango" is really anything round, the artist says, and it can exist at any scale. He once built 11-foot-tall dangos, firing them in giant kilns used to make sewer pipes. Other dangos fit in the hand like potatoes. The dangos at Klein Art Works are more seed-shaped than spherical and lose much of their power in side view. Flared slightly inward where they touch the floor, they convey a sense of lightness and instability.

Large dangos look best from a distance and can be perceived as cool and reserved. But Kaneko says that he has a dango storage room in his studio that children explore when they visit. "Most of the time, they run between the pieces and make cheerful noises," he states, which suggests that they find his sculptures welcoming.

The dangos in Kaneko's show are decorated with two layers of colored glaze. Backgrounds are brushed or dripped in white, gray or black. The top layer is simple, brightly colored shapes -- stripes, squares and forms that could be clouds or waterfalls. One dango has a wide dark blue line spiraling around it over a blue-white background. Smaller dangos are more simply decorated.

Silent Conversations
Kaneko says that he "almost always" has a need to decorate the surfaces of his works. He has silent "conversations" with his unfinished clay forms. Once he hears "what a form has to say," he starts to see "marks and colors on the surface." He connects painting to pattern making and believes that the spaces between the marks are "as important as the marks themselves."

Painting dangos is "very complicated" with "drips in back and solid in front," Kaneko says. He paints "blind" because glaze changes color, sometimes radically, in the kiln. Light gray becomes intense blue, for example, and dirty yellow changes to intense yellow. Though experience has taught him how to adjust for this, Kaneko never feels completely in control. He cannot correct colors after a piece comes from the kiln.

The wall pieces in the show are flat slabs that measure 30 by 22 inches. Kaneko paints marks or simple shapes on a dripped or brushed-in background, adding lines and small areas of color to balance the design of the piece. The wall works have lyrical Tapies-like compositions.

There is much variety in the glaze. We see smooth transparent surfaces, crackle glaze, air bubbles, areas where the artist mixed sand into the glaze and bare spots. "I apply glaze deliberately and keep everything as simple as possible," says the artist. "I've worked with five or ten glazes for 30 years and don't really know that much about the chemistry. My glazes are as thin as a sheet of paper when I apply them. The drips are thicker."

A Kaneko trademark is a small surface decoration, often rectangular, with copper tone or no glaze at the center and a red line around the perimeter. These are made during glazing, but encircled with a black line, which is transformed to copper red by charging the kiln with a smoky reduction atmosphere and briefly creating an oxygen shortage as the ceramic cools after firing. This is virtuoso technique and Kaneko will only say that the red-lined areas are "part of the composition," which he creates by "following my intuition."

Two clay pedestal pieces shaped like huge eggs are new to his work, the artist says. The first egg, placed in a dark bowl-like form, is preposterously decorated with polka dots. The second egg has a rough, unglazed, clinker-like surface and could have been blown from a volcano. Its brown, slip glazed enclosure suggests ancient architecture. We hope the artist makes more of these winning pieces.

"Amazing difference"
Kaneko's intensely colored horizontal stripe paintings grab the viewer and don't let go. He decorates canvas as he does clay and makes no attempt to create an illusion of depth or form. Other paintings have nervous, brushed-in backgrounds, intense colors, and fields of marks and shapes that recall the dangos and wall pieces.

There's an "amazing difference" between painting and ceramic sculpture, Kaneko says. Clay is stop-and-start work, with long waits between stages in the creative process as the material dries. With painting, he can be spontaneous and not worry that colors will change in a kiln. Still, he finds it exhausting to paint and says that "it drives you nuts to have complete freedom."

Jun Kaneko is an artist's artist, mad about form, line, pattern and color. To grasp the subtlety of his work, you must look long and very carefully at it. Though Kaneko is no path breaker in art, he makes exquisite objects that we remember long after leaving the gallery. Best of all, he's still learning.

VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.