Jun Kaneko is a prolific Japanese ceramicist who has made large-scale sculptures and even opera costumes. His ceramic pieces tend to derive their own unique character from their irregular forms and painterly use of glazes. In his previous exhibitions he has called his larger ceramic sculptures dango after the sweet dumplings common at festivals in Japan. The sculptures' bright colors and bold patterns complement the playful name and suggest that each piece has its own personality. In his latest exhibition, "New Work" at Philadelphia's Locks Gallery, Kaneko's work expresses the complex nature of individuality: celebratory yet also potentially isolating.
He uses drips, scribbles and broad brush strokes on his wall slabs to transform each piece into a convincing picture plane. Until the viewer approaches the objects from the side, it is almost impossible to distinguish them from paintings. These slabs are raku-fired, a traditional Japanese pottery technique that combines lead glazes, low firing temperatures and early removal from the kiln.
Kaneko also incorporates several intentional imperfections to give each object a festive spirit. He uses a dripping technique on the polka dot patterns in his small scale "Constructions" sculptures. He explains that this effect comes from gravity pulling down the glaze, a deliberate choice that originated from his "bad craftsmanship" when he first started making ceramic work. Other pieces have fractures and bubbles in the glaze, which a more conventional ceramicist might consider undesirable. Undoubtably Kaneko sees these developments as successes that give the pieces textures that resemble cracks or pores in skin.
Although he repeats the same shapes and uses a limited palette of colors, no two objects are alike. Each dango seems to have been shaped by hand and every brush stroke has a care-free character. The saturated colors and basic shapes evoke a child-like feeling of being proud to exist as a unique self.
While individuality is something to celebrate, it can also be isolating. Kaneko creates forms that resemble architecture or even theatrical sets to surround the dango. This suggests that the forms are aware of their own vulnerability and small scale, as each dango is perched at the edge of a long slabs or sits in a corner like a small animal huddling for warmth. The artist himself has noted that he carefully considers each sculpture's relationship to its environment before making it.
The raku-fired wall slabs also express a certain loneliness. Kaneko places vibrant elementary shapes either floating in the isolation of a washed-out field of color or tightly hugging the edge of the slab, disconnected from other shapes.
Jun Kaneko's New Work demonstrates a sophisticated awareness of the conflicted value of individuality, which may be connected to his personal artistic development. He was originally trained as a painter, which shapes his way of handling materials and viewing the world. Even after decades of working predominantly in ceramics, the echoes of his painting heritage are evident in his brushed-on glazes. Kaneko's artistic transformation hints at the potential for change rooted in the individuality of his New Work.
WORDS BY JEANNE O'SHELL