Cover story:
Jun Kaneko:  The Maximal Minimalist
In glass, as in ceramics, Jun Kaneko explores discrete ideas on an indiscreet scale
by Richard Speer

        Jun Kaneko has enjoyed a wide-ranging career in the visual arts—touching on painting, drawing, installation, set and costume design, and public commissions—but he is undoubtedly best known as a ceramic artist.  Since 1998, however, he has been exploring contemporary studio glass, with solo shows in 2001, 2002, and now 2007, all at Bullseye Gallery in Portland, Oregon.  Comparisons and contrasts between the artist’s work in ceramics and in glass are inevitable and instructive.  As the current exhibition, New Glass, illustrates, Kaneko is going after the same things he has always explored, with the aid of a material very different from his native ceramics.  “I believe in communicating simple ideas,” Kaneko says.  New Glass bears this out, but it is not so much an exclamation point to the artist’s modus operandi as it is an ellipsis:  insinuating, poetic, open-ended.

Born in 1942 in Japan, Kaneko began painting in his late teens.  When he moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 1963, he met ceramics collectors Fred and Mary Marer on his first day in the country.  He wound up staying at their home for several months while the couple took an extended vacation and became fascinated by ceramics.  Thereupon his interest in painting became secondary to a burgeoning new talent.  Over the ensuing decades he developed and diversified his artistry in a generally conceptual direction, using ceramics to explore Op-influenced pattern and a predilection for biomorphic form.  Despite the heterogeneity of his output, it is for his monumental “Dangos” (Japanese for “dumpling”) that he is most widely known.  He made his first batch of them in 1983 in Omaha, Nebraska:  hulking sculptures that stood six feet high and weighed 5.5 tons apiece.  Ten years later he added equally enormous “Heads” to his repertoire, inscrutable visages that evoke clear affinities to the great stone monoliths on Easter Island.  The Dangos offer a key to Kaneko’s modus operandi in ceramics as well as glass.  He is interested in communicating small, discrete bits of information by way of large, indiscreet works.  Conceptually a minimalist, he is materially a maximalist.  While the glass works, pristine and geometric, look nothing like the lion’s share of his lumpily intuitive ceramics, they convey a similar arcanum.  Work for the current show began in 2003, with the artist visiting Bullseye’s affiliated Portland factory and studio some five times over the next four years, sometimes for as little as three days at a time, other times for as much as three weeks.  Phone consultations and digital images shared over the Internet augmented in-person inspection.  During this process, Bullseye staff made prototypes of several pieces, and Kaneko requested refinements.  “It’s a great advantage,” he observes, “not to know what’s possible.  I saw the test pieces and said, ‘Can you replicate that on a bigger scale?’  They said, ‘There’s no way.’  But eventually they found a way.”

In his previous two outings at Bullseye, he had built architectonic towers from kilnformed glass sticks, which he stacked atop one another like Lincoln Log forts.  These towers recalled his 1981 Parallel Sound installation at Gallery Takagi in Nagoya, Japan.  Embarking into the terra incognita of glass, he had opted to return to a familiar form.  For the second show he hung triangular panels from the ceiling, the threaded glass panels juxtaposing horizontal lines with jaunty diagonals.  What he was doing, he said at the time, was “developing a complex visual language within the simple placement of stringers on flat glass.”  Notably, in the aftermath of those first shows, he has not opted to continue to develop that language, but rather to simplify it—to abandon the pretext of ceramics-to-glass transliteration and instead devote himself to the deconstruction of visual language itself.  “I am becoming more elemental visually,” he says today.  “To deduct complexity is difficult.  To take something out, you have to know both sides of it.”  The result of this reductivism is paradoxically more like his work in ceramics—if not formally, then thematically—in that it is similarly preoccupied with enigma, scale, and the dialectic between oppositions:  pattern/solid, regularity/irregularity, and geometry/organicism.

New Glass unfolds in Bullseye’s special exhibitions gallery, a dark, dramatically lit space that takes up the bulk of the gallery’s second floor.  With its gritty, industrial feel—brick walls, exposed pipes, rough wooden columns—it lends itself well to Kaneko’s mysterious etudes.  The show’s leitmotif—theme and variations on dichotomy and integration—is established immediately in the four glass planks immediately inside the gallery entranceway.  The pieces are concerned with verticality:  Blue Current via regularly spaced vertical dashes in a lively blue; Water Dream by way of blue dashes irregularly spaced; Tropical Shower with pastel-colored lines that slash downward like raindrops; and Tropical Shower 2 with its integration of blue dashes and more fanciful hues.  It is as if Kaneko, as pictorial linguist, is saying:  Here is a conceptual kernal:  verticality.  It can be expressed with uniform or varied components; it can be chromatically similar or dissimilar; but in no instance can it be horizontal.  For an explanation of horizontality, see Exhibit B.

Which turns out to be Mythology, a curved, 42-foot-long wall of 30 panels made from glass thread.  The piece is an unfolding peripatetic adventure for the viewer, a journey of discovery whose central tenet is the spacing of black and white horizontal threads.  On first glance, the piece appears to be a broad circle, like an X-pen for some exceedingly fortunate canine.  As one walks around its perimeter, the panels’ matte surface is glamorized by with pinpoints of halogen light twinkling through champagne bubbles.  The black and white threads are seemingly infinitely varied:  some in thin strips, others conglomerated in fat chunks, some predominantly white, others more black.  “The orchestration of spaces between the black and white stringers,” Kaneko says, “is almost like composing music...  Lots of my pieces are about space.  I make marks to create the space in between.”  Ultimately the piece curves around to reveal itself not as a perfect circle, but as an outwardly spiraling nautilus shape, glossily finished on its open interior as a contrast to the matte exterior.  There is black and there is white, the piece seems to say.  These colors may be spaced however the artist wants, but under no circumstances will color enter into the equation.  For a primer on color, see Exhibit C.

Which turns out to be the piece immediately behind Mythology on the gallery’s far wall:  African Reflection.  Comprised of eighteen slabs lined up in a row, with six-slab groupings of blue, red, and yellow, these pieces could not be visually further from Kaneko’s Dangos—or conceptually closer to them.  They are perfect rectangles to the Dangos’ lumpy organicism; they are brightly colored to the Dangos’ drab or grayscale palette; and they glisten and play in the light, while the Dangos dryly deflect it.  But these primary-colored slabs, seven feet tall, exert a primal, stupefying effect on the viewer every bit as elemental and fearsome as do the Dangos.  In their sheer, archetypal primacy, they evoke science fiction and science fact:  Arthur C. Clarke’s monoliths, the mathematical sequences in Carl Sagan’s Contact, the five-note melody in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or NASA’s Pioneer and Voyager spacecrafts, with their schematic plaques intended to communicate the rudiments of life on Earth to potential extraterrestrial interceptors.  This is Kaneko’s tact:  to deconstruct the components of visual experience into axioms so basic, they could be decoded and understood by anyone possessing a modicum of intelligence and the faculty of sight.  It is worth pointing out that vocabulary-building was of especial importance to Kaneko as a young man, who arrived in the U.S. speaking no English whatsoever.  This is a man who knows what it means to build a vocabulary and learn a language.  In his 2001 and 2002 shows, he interspersed triangles with rectangles, diagonals with horizontals, as if to create a new semantics for glass.  In 2007, with his diagonal-less verticals and horizontals, he seems to be breaking semantics down into phonetics.

The smaller pieces along the walls near African Reflection and in the side rooms lining the gallery seem to be making impish commentary about their imposing neighbor.  The three elegant slabs in Liquid Velocity 3 are so sparing in their lines and parabolas of color, they make the larger piece appear vulgar by comparison.  Liquid Velocity 2, with its three slabs segmented by blue parabolic flow bars, has one pillar facing glossily forwards, the other two modestly toward the wall.  The ten thin glass sticks in Colorbox are shot through with a riot of cross-sectional planes in Day-Glo colors, Liquid Velocity 1 with groovy Sixties stripes à la Bridget Riley, in marked contrast to African Reflection’s somber primaries.  The give-and-take between these pieces is not accidental; it is a dialogue Kaneko has built in.  “All of these pieces speak of themselves,” he says, “but also speak to one another.”  Translucent Angle, a milky slab leaning from a shorter foot, provides the only diagonal in the show.  Says Kaneko:  “I went back and forth:  Should I add a diagonal?  Just adding a diagonal changes so many elemental issues.  It’s actually a very aggressive act.”  The piece’s appearance changes with the angle of approach, matte finish from one side, shimmering and limpid from the other, the foot hidden at certain angles, making the entire, 500-pound piece appear to float unsupported.  “I’m interested in the translucence of glass,” the artist says.  “You can’t get translucence in ceramics except on a very thin glaze.  If I made these exact shapes in ceramics, it wouldn’t be the same.  In glass, it’s possible to see inside the shape.”

In his dialectic deconstruction, Kaneko allows the viewer not only to see inside the shape, but to see inside the artist’s creative process as well.  New Glass is uniquely successful in the virtuosity with which it shows the whittling down of concepts into smaller and smaller kernels—even if the pieces that concretize those ideas are anything but small.


—A contributing critic to ARTnews and Art, Ltd., Richard Speer is the author of Matt Lamb: The Art of Success (John Wiley & Sons) and is visual arts critic at Willamette Week, the Pulitzer Prize-winning alternative weekly in Portland, Oregon.  He has written about cultural matters for Newsweek, Salon, The Los Angeles Times, and Opera News.

(Kaneko portrait by J. Hart, all photos courtesy Bullseye Gallery)