The surest cure for winter blues can be found in the West End’s Carl Solway Gallery, where Jun Kaneko's big, brash, superbly finished ceramic sculptures and his brilliantly colored paintings and drawings lift the spirit at first glance.
The 68-year-old artist, whose works are included in many prestigious museum collections, left his native Japan to study in California in1963. There he trained under Peter Voulkos and other leaders of the contemporary ceramics movement. (The movement was based on the notion that ceramics could be free of function; their beauty as art objects was reason enough for their existence.) He has been associated with the Bemis Center For Contemporary Art in Omaha, Neb., since the mid-1980s and later established Jun Kaneko Studio there. He has shown widely in this country and abroad, but this is his first appearance at the Solway Gallery.
A congress of pieces, three repeated shapes in varying sizes, is gathered in Solway’s large front gallery, appearing almost like some strange race that has come together in a city square. They are benign creatures, despite the fact that three of them are taller than your tallest friend, and extraordinarily appealing. The Japanese-born artist calls these works “Dangos.” The Internet tells me “dango” in Japanese means “closed form” or (endearingly) “dumpling” (dango is a sweet Japanese dumpling made of rice). Kaneko's “dumplings” are glazed ceramic sculptures and sport colors of gorgeous variety. They are of a size that calls for skill and even daring, I should think.
The three 7-foot-tall Dangos are almost personified by their surface decoration.
“Number 12” is orange overall, with slender vertical stripes of many colors that curve over its top like so many suspenders. “Number 17” is the city guy, with a good gray base coat and black horizontals across varied verticals. “Number 19” is marginally taller than his mates and decoration here is a new game. Slim, wiggly lines are out in force, along with dots and circles. The shape of these vertical works also appears in smaller, squatter versions, each individual in treatment. “Number 21” is almost clown-like, with a brown rectangle slanted rakishly over its top and bright vertical stripes.
The stunning centerpiece among these sculptures is “Number 18,” the largest of the works called Dango Triangles. The Triangles are markedly broader at the top than the bottom, which creates an unsettling effect. The bands of strong, unshaded color bleed stripes of contrasting colors.
The least conspicuous piece in the gallery is tucked between the two openings to the room, an object 2 feet high and egg-shaped. Although one Triangle dates from 2003, most Dangos here are from 2009 or 2010.
“Nagoya Wall — Tile Wall” (1987) shows the inception of some of the surface design in the front gallery and honors the artist's city of birth. A virtuosic spread of 56 tiles in an installation nearly 9 feet high and more than 18 feet wide, it has recurrent themes but no duplicate tiles. The wall faces the door at the far end of the entry corridor in which a series of smaller works lines the walls and suggests this artist's continual inventiveness.
A painter who turned to ceramics, Kaneko never really gave up two-dimensional works. Paintings and drawings are shown in Solway's other two ground-floor galleries. The artist's visceral feel for color makes itself felt in paintings that are rigidly designed but abundantly divergent in hue. A black grid keeps order over rich variations in “Number 24” and black verticals in “Number 32” contrast with the very similar painting lacking these, “Number 31.” A 1997 stripe painting picks up where Color Field painter Gene Davis left off, back in the ’60s/’70, and a lilting series of monotypes from 1994 shows a whirligig shape scrambling and unscrambling colors.
In the Information Room, a digital print has the only two human representations in the show, two women wearing kimonos, a light-hearted image overlaid with colored circles. The Information Room also has a film of the artist at work on his enormous ceramics.Kanecko's work, in whatever medium, is consistently a paean to color and shape.
JUN KANEKO is on view at Carl Solway Gallery (424 Findlay St., West End) through April 23. Get show and gallery details here.