Kaneko's 'Reflection' captivates on all fronts
By Victoria Gail White
Special to The Advertiser
By Victoria Gail White
Jun Kaneko's dangos, "the Japanese word for dumplings," are comfort food for the eyes. Up to 11 feet tall and weighing more than five tons, wherever these sculptures are placed whether a private garden or a museum they liven up the soup of the chaotic world around them. Brightly colored glazes drip, stripe and dot the surfaces, giving the pieces a deliciousness rarely seen in such large sculptures.
Kaneko's exhibition at The Contemporary Museum at First Hawaiian Center showcases dangos, giant heads and his "Hawaiian Drawings" series of paintings, drawings and monotypes, on view for the first time. Since his first visit to Hawai'i in 1995, the artist has regularly spent time here, even maintaining a studio on Kaua'i in the 1990s.
The Nagoya, Japan, native didn't start out as a ceramic sculptor. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1963 to study painting at the Chouinard Art Institute. Serendipitously, he stayed with noted ceramic-art collectors Fred and Mary Marer and was fascinated by the array of contemporary works in their house. He took his first ceramic course in 1965. Two years later he was at the University of California-Berkeley, studying with Peter Voulkos, the man who changed ceramics from a traditional craft to a high art form.
Today an internationally indemand artist, Kaneko is busy on three projects he is working on in Omaha, Neb., where he settled in 1986, and where he owns a block's worth of warehouses to accommodate his larger-than-life work. In town for the opening of his show, he spoke with me about his process, opera and what it takes to be an artist.
Q. Did you initially see ceramics as a better vehicle for your abstract painting style?
A. I'm not sure what I was thinking when I was 21 years old. Everything was a curiosity and a trial. But one thing I realized, coming from painting, was that trying to make something three-dimensional was really hard. My earlier work has a two-sided kind of form.
It took several years to realize there was more to deal with. When you have a form like two slabs put together and it's in the middle of a space, it's two-sided. Usually, I wasn't happy or satisfied equally from both sides. That started to bother me. It needed a continuous flow. I tried to look for a form that would make more sense. That process took about four years.
You know, there are some obvious influences between painting and ceramics, but I don't like to think that. I'm painting a ceramic piece as a three-dimensional form, so I like to think in terms of 360 degrees of the painting surface. It has to make sense from any direction you are looking at it.
Canvas, on the other hand, is a frontal problem within a given space you try to make the best composition.
Also, because of the process, ceramics takes a long time. You are painting it, glazing it, and then you have to fire it. And besides that, color changes, so when you're painting it you are not looking at real color. It changes in the kiln firing. It's a very difficult thing to get used to. Now I'm sort of able to see the final color even before the firing. But it took me 20 years to feel semi-comfortable.
Q. Were your original dangos dumpling-sized?
A. The first piece I made in 1982 was 6 feet high, 7 feet wide and 5 feet deep. Each one weighed about 11,000 pounds. It coincided with the fact that I was given the use of an industrial kiln for a year. I made it as big as I could fit through the kiln door. ... After I went back to my own studio, I started to make work related to that idea although the kiln was smaller. That started a different approach. The scale is definitely an important part of the visual impact.
Q. Why did you wait so long to show your series of Hawaiian drawings and paintings?
A. I have hundreds of drawings and paintings but I hardly ever show them. Five years ago I started to show paintings and drawings mixed with ceramic work. This Hawaiian series was done in 1995, the paintings later. Because I have never looked at them in a formal way in a gallery, they look completely different. I'm happy with the installation.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. Three big projects. I've been working on the stage set and costumes for Opera Omaha's "Madama Butterfly" for the last two and a half years. The grand opening is March 17. It comes to Honolulu next year. ...
I spent 10 months designing it. There are amazing conflicts to work with. I'm used to sculpture. Once you set it, it just sits there for months. The set and costumes move around all the time, the light changes, there's music and everything is synchronized.
The second project involves the use of another industrial kiln in Pittsburg, Kan. I have two kilns to work inside for the next three years. Each kiln is 39 feet in diameter, and the peak of the domed ceiling is 19 feet high. The fabrication last April took more than four months. We (Kaneko has up to five assistants) built four 13-foot-tall pieces and four 10-foot-tall heads and 38 9-foot dangos. They have been drying for the past year, and we are hoping to do a glaze firing in June.
I do all the glazing, and that takes about seven months. The very large pieces are built inside of the kiln with a scaffolding space around them. The 9 1/2-foot pieces go in between them. It is usually better to have a kiln pretty tight when you fire. These pieces will take seven weeks for the bisque firing and seven weeks for glaze firing in a gas kiln.
The third project is my involvement in establishing Kaneko, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creativity.
Q. Your expenses for these projects must be astronomical!
They are. Kansas is a half-million-dollar, two-and-a-half-year experimental project. It involves critical technical research and development. We had to research the clay body, shrinkage, firing speed and stuff like that because nobody has ever done this before. I'm using heavy industrial equipment and firing two kilns, both bisque and glaze, so it's about $100,000 just to fire it. But the most expensive part of the process is labor. My schedule doesn't allow me to be there full time ... so I hired a project manager, as well as my other assistants.
Q. Does someone manage your business affairs as well?
A. Yes, my wife, Ree (Schonlau), and four others, and it's not enough. She's working all the time.
Q. What advice would you give a young artist?
A. Well you know, it's pretty simple. 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 use clay, steel, wood or whatever and 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 feeling to evaluate your own work. ... There is no magic; it is hard work, like anything else.