Seeing Inside the Shape:  Jun Kaneko's New Glass
a catalogue essay by Richard Speer
for Bullseye Gallery, Portland, OR

        It’s March 19, 2007, just one day before the opening of Jun Kaneko’s New Glass at Bullseye Gallery.  Freshly arrived in Portland from Hawaii, the artist is inspecting the exhibition for the first time.  It’s a show three years in the making, with five preparatory visits and countless hours of phone and Internet consultations under the bridge, and now, tonight, everything has come together.  Almost.  Kaneko, in his customary black ensemble, is in Bullseye’s upstairs gallery looking at a piece called Liquid Velocity 2, a trio of six-foot-high slabs of kilnformed glass layered with blue flow bars.  The slabs are all face-forward, uniformly distanced from one another, staring back at Kaneko as he stares at them.  At great length he decides he wants two of the pieces to be turned around, so that their glossy fronts face the wall and their matte backsides face the viewer.  He also wants to group the backward-facing pieces close to one another, with the forward piece off to the side.  The installers accompanying Kaneko glance at one another.  Each of the slabs weighs 293 pounds and is the product of some 159 hours in the studio and more than a week in the kiln.  Moving pieces of this size will require three installers working in tandem in an exercise that requires equal parts brute strength and exquisite delicacy.  One misstep and the whole slab could come crashing down.  But Kaneko has made his decision, the opening is imminent, the clock is ticking.  The installers get to work.

Fast-forward to opening night, and the pieces look like they were born this way:  forward/backward, matte/glossy, grouped/distanced, communicating with one another and the viewer in a spatial key signature simultaneously harmonious and dissonant.  “Most everything I do,” Kaneko says, “is from my gut response, not analytical.”  And he means it, as the incident with Liquid Velocity 2 has shown.  Intuitive, thoughtful, poetic, he responds with particular acuity to the vagaries inhabiting the pregnant space between an artwork and its creator.

This is Kaneko’s third all-glass show at Bullseye.  His first was in 2001, his second in 2002.  The seeds of these and the current show were sown in 1998, when the artist first met Bullseye’s directors in Fort Worth, Texas, at the annual conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA).  Always interested in exploring new materials, he populated his debut show as a glass artist with clear and primary-colored slabs and architectonic towers fashioned from interlocking kilnformed sticks, stacked upon one another like Lincoln Logs.  His second show featured stringer panels and triangular compositions that hung from the ceiling.  At the time, he said he was in the process of “developing a complex visual language within the simple placement of stringers on flat glass.”  Since 2002 he seems to have taken Thoreau’s edict—“Simplify, simplify!”—to heart and in the current show has markedly simplified that “complex visual language.”  As he said on the opening night of New Glass, “I am becoming more elemental visually.  To deduct complexity is difficult.  To take something out, you have to know both sides of it.”  Achieving simplicity this time around took 20,000 pounds of raw glass, more than 10,000 hours of fabrication time, 40 cast-glass slabs, and a 42-foot-long spiraling wall of glass threads.  What this mélange of minimalism and maximalism accomplishes is perhaps one of Kaneko’s most visceral and engrossing exhibitions in any medium.  He has used contemporary studio glass to build a dialectic of opposites, a binary yin/yang manifested in elegant contrasts of vertical and horizontal, black and white, primary colors and pastels, regularity and irregularity, geometry and organicism.

This etude on opposition and integration begins upon entering Bullseye’s moody upstairs gallery, with its industrial brick and exposed pipes.  To the left stand four glass planks, with which the artist plays variations on the theme of verticality.  From left to right, Blue Current spaces blue dashes with exacting regularity; Water Dream scatters the marks like buckshot; Tropical Shower introduces color, with long raindrops in yellow, red, violet, and turquoise; and Tropical Shower 2 combines Blue Current’s blue dashes with Tropical Shower’s rainbow hues.  Within the formal parameters of four rectangular slabs jotted with vertical marks, Kaneko has developed progressive permutations of regularity and irregularity as the building blocks for a new vocabulary.

            In the center of the gallery, behind a wooden column, is an imposing, curved wall of 30 panels made from glass thread, lit such that tiny pinpoints twinkle like stars through champagne bubbles.  The piece, which is called Mythology, is built upon the irregular spacing of black and white horizontal threads.  “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.”  One walks around Mythology and wonders where it will stop, whether it is perfectly round, whether it has an interior, and if so, if one will be able to venture inside.  Ultimately, one discovers that it is not a perfect circle, but irregularly curved, like the innermost chambers of a nautilus.  Inside, the glass’ surface is reflective, the threaded panels reflecting patterns and light from the panels opposite them.  For the viewer, the experience is peripatetic and investigational:  experiencing the artist’s feints as the illusion of perfect geometry yields to the revelation of organicism, and curiosity about what is hidden is rewarded by the drama of the revealed.

Behind Mythology, on the far wall, stands what is arguably an even more dramatic piece, perhaps even the soul of the show:  African Reflection.  Eighteen slabs lined up like oversized bullion bars, the piece consists of three groupings of six slabs apiece, each group in a primary color:  blue, red, and yellow, from left to right.  A panoply of halogens penetrates each slab, throwing spokes of light in crisscrossing patterns across the concrete floor.  These monochromatic slabs recall the kimono jackets Kaneko designed for his textile experiments of the late 1970s, which he revisited in 2006 in costume sketches for his production design for Opera Omaha’s Madama Butterfly.  These great slabs, seven feet tall, in their physical stature, sheer number, regular spacing, and elemental chromaticism, have an unspeakable, stupefying effect.  There is something decidedly otherworldly and archetypal about them, like so many replications of the famous monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001:  A Space Odyssey.

Against the wall to the left of African Reflection lean the three slabs that make up Liquid Velocity 3.  Transparent except for lines and parabolas in primary colors, this triad makes a wry, understated commentary on their imposing neighbor.  Along the opposite wall, in small side rooms, are more slabs, each of which seems devoted to advancing a basic conceptual kernel.  The leftmost room contains the slabs that Kaneko turned around.  In the next are ten thinner pieces called Colorbox, more sticks than slabs, resplendent with myriad cross-sections in bright orange, lime green, fucsia, South Beach turquoise, and Caribbean corals that riposte playfully to the overserious, Mondrian-and-Miró primaries of African Reflection.  In the next room, Arctic, with its five planks of blue stripes lined up militarily, pulls back from the exuberance of Colorbox.  Kaneko confirms the dialogic call-and-response:  “All of these pieces speak of themselves but also speak to one another.”

In the final room on the right is the piece Kaneko calls his favorite:  Translucent Angle, an opaque slab with a short foot, placed on the floor like an “L” doing pushups.  The diagonal line created by this positioning is the only diagonal in the entire show.  “I went back and forth,” Kaneko says.  “Should I add a diagonal?  Just adding a diagonal changes so many elemental issues.  It’s actually a very aggressive act.”  As in Mythology, Translucent Angle is participatory for the viewer.  Its surface changes with the angle of approach, its matte opacity from the front giving way to glamorous, swimming-pool shine from the opposite vantage.  From some angles, you cannot see the piece’s foot, and the slab seems to float, unsupported.

Ghostly, arcane, this piece and the rest are objets mystérieux whose only fathomable purpose seems to be to communicate the roots of a language.  Kaneko’s semantic experiments put one in mind of the Pioneer and Voyager spacecrafts launched in the 1970s, which bear diagrams intended to communicate basic information about Earthlings and our solar system, should extraterrestrials ever intercept them.  One plaque bears a drawing of a man and woman, a perspective of the sun’s location in relation to the center of the Milky Way, and a schematic of the hydrogen atom, the most abundant element in the known universe.  Kaneko’s breaking down of the language of marks and colors into fundamental oppositions and axioms has the whiff of a similar, almost scientific approach to aesthetic reductivism.  He goes about this via tactics that are alternately magisterial (African Reflection), playful (Colorbox), and cagey (Mythology).

It is perhaps surprising that his best-known work in ceramics—the oversized, dumpling-like “Dangos” he has been making since the 1980s—address Easter Island-like impenetrabilities by way of biomorphic forms, and yet in glass work, he relies upon pristine geometric structures.  “For me,” he says, “the geometric is more natural for the material and techniques [of glass].  I could make something very organic with glass—it’s possible, and maybe someday I will—but for now, I’m very interested in translucence:  how light transmits through the slab.  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.”  Even with all its lightplay and chromatic adventurism, New Glass comes across, on the whole, as no less inscrutable and intriguing than Kaneko’s ceramic enigmas.  It is possible to look into a heart that is crystal-clear and still not divine its mysteries.

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