Jun Kaneko

(American, 1942– )

Untitled (Dango #4905)

, 2004
Glazed ceramic, 59 1/2 x 30 1/2 x 20 in.
Edwin B. Green American Art Acquisition Endowment and gift of the artist, 2005.12


Jun Kaneko makes ceramic works that have a unique Eastern and Western sensibility. This comes from his rich cultural heritage and the academic training through study with one of the masters of American ceramics. Kaneko was born and raised in Japan. He came to the United States to study ceramics at the University of California-Berkeley with Peter Voulkos. Voulkos was recognized as having brought a strong Modernist influence to the field of ceramics; prior to the middle of the twentieth century, people who worked in clay were “potters” and made functional pottery, such as vessels, bowls, cups, etc. Voulkos changed all of this by bringing the ideas and methods of Modern artists of the post-war era to the ceramic field. Influenced heavily by Voulkos, the lineage of Jun Kaneko’s forms can be traced back to Constantin Brancusi and Jean Arp. Jun Kaneko also brings a post-painterly abstraction to surface treatment in his forms; his work stands with the best of the non-objective painters of post-war contemporary art world.

From his Japanese background, Kaneko draws on Shinto philosophy and it is this realm that his Eastern influences manifest themselves. Kaneko refers to a “spiritual scale” that works of art possess. This scale is not tied to form or function, but based on the idea that scale is relational interaction occurring between that work and the viewer. The Shinto concept of ma translates as spirit in English and Kaneko has emphasized an intuitive “attachment through space”; the interactive ma defines the relationship of the viewer to the work of art, as well as the space around a work and the integration of form and surface decoration. A kind of three-dimensional “canvas” in the round made out of clay, the “dango” form is simple (dango is the Japanese word for dumpling) and resembles the lingam of the Buddhist and Hindu religions. The drawing on and painterly handling of the surface is derived from Western non-objective painting. The static, monolithic form and the active surface reconciles two opposing aesthetics, also a very philosophical, Eastern concept.

The formidable dangos are technical feats of ceramic skill, demanding that Kaneko have an integrated and on-going consideration of two- and three-dimensional design when making this dango. In order to create a dango, Kaneko must sometimes create the work upside down using thick clay slabs or coils to form the walls of the structure, allowing bottom layers to dry enough to hold top construction layers yet still be plastic enough to incorporate the next layer of construction. Providing that the work dries to completion without cracking or breaking, the work must survive both the bisque and glaze firings without exploding. As is often true of most ceramic artists, much of Mr. Kaneko's work does not survive this grueling process; Kaneko estimates that two or three in ten works he produces survives the formidable technical demands of producing such ambitious forms. Since some of the dango works range from eight to eleven feet tall and weigh over 1,000 pounds, the drying process takes approximately four months and the firing process can take up to 35 days. Once the work is constructed, Kaneko would embellish the surface using glazes instead of paint. Opaque and transparent washes of color are applied in a layered manner. Kaneko draws contour lines on the work in a rhythmic, improvised pattern at the top of the piece and they become vertical towards the bottom. Bold, linear shapes of color, black lines, and dots in repeated patterns are given careful placement around the surface of the form.

Peter Voulkos, Kaneko’s mentor and arguably the most influential artist in the field of contemporary ceramics, described Kaneko’s work: “His accomplishments are unrivaled in the field of ceramic art. His technical achievements alone have redefined the possibilities the medium has to offer.” He then goes on to say, “Kaneko’s ceramic works are an amazing synthesis of painting and sculpture. His works are enigmatic and elusive, simultaneously restrained and powerful, Eastern and Western, static and alive, intellectual and playful, technical and innovative.” As Kaneko explains it, the creative process is both mysteriously profound and deceptively simple, much like his forms: “To be a visual artist, you have to make something visual. To make something visual, you have to spend your energy. Make your own statement with whatever materials you want to useclay, steel, wood, or whateverand just keep on doing that. There are a lot of complex issues that come up. Once you make it, you have to have the ability to evaluate your own work and increase the part you like about each piece. The pieces will get better and make better sense for you. If you start talking about the value of art, this is a confusing thing because there is no set value.  It is wise to stay with your intuitive feeling and value judgment of your own work and always start from there.  We are not driven by ourselves in this world. Other people's opinions will start influencing us.  But in the balance between the artist's self to other people's opinions, I think it's wise to stay with your intuitive feelings to evaluate your own work. ... There is no magic; it is hard work, like anything else.”