Velocity , 2009; bronze, oil-based enamel paints and steel, 123½ x 70 x 77 inches; courtesy of the artist. Photo: Haley Morris-Cafiero
W hen one thinks of “ceramics,” certain words come to mind: Delicate. Breakable. Rare. Reserved. Images also emerge: China cabinets full of paper-thin porcelain plates. Floral patterns on an aging aunt’s prized vase. That one “artsy” but hopelessly misguided mug at a crafts fair.
Throw out all those associations before you go see Jun Kaneko’s outdoor exhibition of ceramic sculpture at The Dixon Gallery and Gardens this summer and fall, while the museum building itself is closed for long-overdue structural renovations. Kaneko’s work is massive. Each of the 24 sculptures currently on view stands between 69 inches and 124 inches tall. Many weigh over a ton. They are glazed fire-engine red, turmeric yellow or midnight blue, or painted with frenetic patterns. Far from delicate, they dominate the landscape.
Distributed around the Dixon’s gardens are Kaneko’s oval “dangos” (in Japanese the word means “rounded form” or “dumpling”). The dangos loom large in leafy alcoves, stand funnily on the lawn, or form colorful columns around manicured plants. They coexist with Kaneko’s series of giant, disembodied heads. Also hidden in the gardens are three ceramic tanukis, or raccoon dogs. In Japanese lore, tanukis are tricksters. In Kaneko’s vision, they perch on two feet and smile toothily.
Erin Riordan, Dixon director Kevin Sharp, and artist Jun Kaneko
To wander the Dixon’s gardens this summer is to be on an Easter egg hunt that feels at once prehistoric and postmodern. Slivers of color are visible at long range. It is impossible not to be curious about what is around the next tree or bend in the path. The sculptures reveal themselves gradually, meanwhile drawing attention to out-of-the-way corners of the grounds where most Dixon visitors rarely go. Among the discoveries: a 150-year-old elm in the far northeast corner of the grounds, arguably the city’s oldest and largest, with its buttress/banyan-style roots that seem better to belong in an African setting.
Jun Kaneko intends his work to reveal new aspects of familiar landscapes. The artist feels strongly that his sculptures are different in every context, and that surroundings change his pieces just as much as the works change their surroundings. The Dixon is only the most recent in Kaneko’s impressive roster of outdoor exhibitions, including a recent showing in Chicago’s Millennium Park. As Kaneko told Art & Antiques magazine last spring, “As a sculptor you focus on making your form or shape, but suddenly you realize that the form or shape you are making is getting so much influence from the environment and the space around it …. Nothing exists by itself in the world.”
The sculptor has fostered much curiosity in a career that spans six decades and two continents. Kaneko was born in rural Japan in 1942, where he informally studied art before finding his way to California in the early 1960s. He arrived in California with nothing but a single contact — the artist Jerry Rothman — and an interest in making things. Rothman was a ceramicist, and under his tutelage Kaneko began to work with clay. Kaneko joined a small and devoted coterie of California-based ceramicists and collectors, including Fred Marer, Peter Voulkos, and Henry Takemoto, now recognized as the founders of the American contemporary ceramics movement.
Untitled , 2002; glazed ceramics and steel, 101½ x 51 x 57 inches; courtesy of the artist.
Contemporary ceramics, as a discipline, combines a modernist perspective on field and form with craft’s attention to technical mastery. Kaneko’s sculptures sport bold colors and playful patterns that almost serve to distract from the technical intensity of the work. A single sculpture can take Kaneko a year from conception to realization — a time period over which a million things can go wrong. The amount of time poured into creating the works is on par with the scale of the finished pieces. These are improbable, grand creations. They seamlessly merge a sense of unhurried playfulness with technical austerity.
Kaneko is interested in creating work that operates on what he calls “spirit scale” — sculptures that will make the viewer look up. He maintains that the simple act of looking up, or of feeling yourself next to something larger than yourself, encourages a spiritual lightness. Kaneko is also inspired by the Shinto concept of Ma, or consciousness of place. His sculptures are functionless architecture rooted in feeling, realized through repetitive form, and amended with bright colors and dancing patterns.
Kaneko has always fostered an egalitarian sense of art. When he returned to Japan in the late 1960s, he helped to start a nontraditional art school in an old factory building and welcomed anyone with interest. More than 700 people passed through his makeshift institution. Kaneko also built his first kiln in Japan, and began experimenting with new forms. He did not return to the states until 1972, when he was asked to found the ceramics department at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. With the support of the Academy, he built a new, larger kiln. “I was always interested in building things,” Kaneko told the Smithsonian Archives of American Art in 2005. “Clay always demands mechanical understanding of the material itself.”
In the following decades, Kaneko has solidified a reputation as a public sculptor, a painter, an educator, a set designer for three operas, and a fabric maker. He moved to Omaha, Nebraska, in 1986, where he currently operates the largest non-industrial kiln in the world. Over the course of Kaneko’s career, contemporary ceramics has grown from a tiny field into a respected discipline that currently graduates over 1,000 students each year.
Untitled , Tanuki, 2012; glazed ceramics, 72 x 32 x 27½ inches; courtesy of the artist.
Kaneko’s exhibition marks a first for the Dixon, an institution that has a lot of experience handling ceramics but that is breaking new ground with a contemporary, outdoor exhibition of this scale. The museum is excited to present Kaneko’s work not only because of the sculptor’s esteem within the field, but because his work is accessible to both young and older visitors. The exhibition, which opened in late May, will remain open through November 22, 2015.
So pick an afternoon this month and meander through the Gardens. You will encounter what the critic John Dorfman called Kaneko’s “phrenology-friendly” heads, hand-glazed with psychedelic lines or fields of Pepto-Bismol pink. You’ll meet the strange (but not unfriendly) tanukis in the Dixon’s Woodland Garden. Wander over to the main lawn and look out on a collection of loosely associated dangos, arranged at diagonals to the monumental heads. Spend time in the more secret parts of the Gardens and pay attention to the negative space between the works. You might notice, for the first time, minute aspects of the landscaping — a flower here; a shrub here — that seem to have grown up overnight, their form and color defined and redefined by Kaneko’s sculptures. And you surely won’t be disappointed.