An Exhibition of Sculptures, Paintings, Drawings & Prints

Entering Jun Kaneko’s solo exhibition at the Carl Solway Gallery, I was smacked in the face by his Nagoya Wall – Tile Wall, 1987, even though the ceramic work is installed on a freestanding wall at the back of the corridor gallery. It did more than draw me into the space, it compelled me to enter, passing by—or bypassing—the artist’s wall works of oval platters and rectangular wall slabs.

The Nagoya Wall (named for Kaneko’s birthplace) is made up of 56 glazed clay tiles, each measuring 14.5″ x 18.5″. They are installed edge-to-edge in a grid of eight (counted horizontally) by seven. Obviously it plays with the traditional concept of a tiled wall and immediately links to Rookwood—we are in Cincinnati after all.

Kaneko’s 1987 wall also brings to mind Jennifer Bartlett’s Rhapsody, a monumental work of 987 one-foot-square steel tiles painted with her vocabulary of symbols. (Rhapsody was shown at The Contemporary Arts Center in 1977.) Likewise, Kaneko’s tiles in his signature palette of immensely strong but not pure color are a compendium of his favored surface designs: big polka dots; ovals; dashes; spirals; zigzags; stripes that run horizontally, vertically, and diagonally; geometric abstractions; and fields of nuanced color. Undoubtedly his painting studies in Japan and the U.S. (he came to this country in 1963 to study painting at Chouinard Institute of Art before switching to ceramics) have played a role in developing this vocabulary.

Once you’ve taken in this work and had a crash course in Kaneko’s aesthetic, you can turn your attention to his other works. The north gallery is filled with 12 sculptures, dating from 2003 to 2010, from his Dango series, which he began in the early 1980s. Dango is the Japanese word for “rounded form,” “enclosed form,” or “dumpling.”

There are two basic types of Dangos: the tall standing forms (up to 87″ here but far short of the 13′ pieces he’s done) that evoke menhirs and monoliths found throughout the world as well as lingams, phallus forms representing the Hindu god Shiva and a symbol of male creative energy. Then there are Dango Triangles, which are easily seen as broad-shouldered torsos with tapered waists.

Although recently he has made colossal heads many feet high, his Dangos with their lively patterns are his best-known work. All of these sculptures are monumental, as the smallest on view here illustrates. Dango – Triangle, 2009, is just 24″ x 23.75″ x 10.25″. The composition is divided vertically with one side a yummy (yes, yummy) tomato red and the other decorated with black dots bleeding on a creamy ground.

Although I prefer the simpler designs, an 85″ tall 2006 untitled (as all are) piece decorated with a Madras-like plaid with vertical stripes crossed by black bands of various widths on a background of bleeding color was also engaging.

After taking in this grouping, I returned to the generously sized corridor gallery. Kaneko’s approximately two-foot-high oval platters and his roughly 22″ x 30″ x 3″ rectangular wall slabs line the walls. Just as his Dango – Triangle works evoke a human torso, the ovals read as featureless faces, recalling Christopher Wilmarth’s Breath series, which was inspired by seven poems by the French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé. In addition to seven sets of pastels and charcoal drawings, Wilmarth made seven steel sculptures with milky white, acid-etched blown glass ovoids that relate to Kaneko’s platters.

Like the Nagoya Wall, Kaneko’s platters reference ceramic traditions, both the strictly utilitarian or decorative as well as the more recent sculptural approach to the form, notably the energetic attacks on the plate by Peter Voulkos. (Kaneko studied with him at U.C., Berkeley, in the 1960s.)

I prefer Kaneko’s more restrained compositions. In Untitled – Platter/Oval, 2009, the top half of the oval is black and the bottom an eggshell color. A red bar cuts vertically across the center. Half of it is overlaid on the neutral ground but it is bordered in the lighter color when it penetrates the black. Interpret that as you will.

Walking behind the freestanding wall with the Nagoya Wall, there are two galleries filled with Kaneko’s paintings, drawings, and prints. The decorative motifs that activate the surfaces of his clay sculptures look lame and derivative in two dimensions. How can anyone look at a painting composed of skinny vertical stripes and not think Gene Davis?

I may be unfairly dismissing his two-dimensional pieces. I confess I spent very little time with them; this, I would argue, supports my judgment. So I recommend spending time with Kaneko’s Dangos and avoiding the flat work, which is, indeed, flat.

– Karen S. Chambers

Jun Kaneko: An Exhibition of Sculptures, Paintings, Drawings & Prints on view through April 23rd at Carl Solway Gallery, 424 Findlay St., Cincinnati, Ohio 45214, 513-621-0069.


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