Jun Kaneko, Untitled glazed raku ceramics and stainless steel. All photographs should be credited as courtesy of KANEKO and Ben Semisch.
Jun Kaneko, Untitled glazed raku ceramics and stainless steel. All photographs courtesy of KANEKO and Ben Semisch.

Influence season” has kicked off at KAENKO after the exhibit’s opening in September during the venue’s annual fundraiser. Influence, which continues until August of 2020,  is a celebration of the life and career of Jun Kaneko, the acclaimed Japanese ceramicist and founder of the KANEKO art center. His impact is examined through his own work and work made by his colleagues.

This dynamic exhibition is based on a quote by Kaneko himself: “Nothing exists by itself; everything has something next to it. Something changes drastically depending on what is next to it.” Acknowledging his influences, the Kaneko too establishes a dialogue between those he has influenced.

The “Influence season” is marked by change, following the four seasons of the year. As the show progresses, galleries will be deinstalled and reinstalled with works by select artists. Currently on display are works by ceramicist Peter Voulkos, metalworker Tony Berlant, ceramic artist John Balistreri, and sculptor Chakaia Booker, and Jun Kaneko himself.

Upcoming seasons will feature work by Paul Soldner, Betty Woodman, Goro Suzuki, Rudy Autio and Manuel Neri. This constant change prevents oneself from absorbing the exhibition in one outing and encourages deep contemplation through frequent visits.

One is confronted by a Peter Voulkos sculpture upon entering the exhibition. This earth-colored colossal ceramic sculpture establishes the themes explored throughout the exhibition, such as the monumentality of Kaneko’s dango sculptures and Japanese aesthetic considerations and philosophical approaches to art.

The lower level concentrates on Kaneko’s mentors, colleagues and artists whose careers developed through Kaneko. Voulkos’s and Berlant’s artworks are placed in relation to one other in one gallery, while Balistreri’s pieces are totally segregated in another gallery room.

Leading from Voulkos’s tone-setting piece, the “Mentors and Contemporaries” room is arranged with enormous sculptures and paintings. But upon further inspection, smaller, more intimate works reveal themselves. Voulkos’s brown-toned earthenware ceramics and bronzes and Berlant’s multi-colored abstract compositions engage in a conversation about the development of contemporary art in California.

Works by Voulkos and Berlant reflect Kaneko’s artmaking philosophy. In Voulkos’s work, Kaneko borrows monumentality and an appreciation of wabi sabi aesthetics, or the belief that beauty exists in the aged and the imperfect. This is balanced out through inspiration from Berlant’s surface treatment, using metallic luster and rhythmic pools of color for retinal pleasure.

Tony Berlant “The Cops & Me” multimedia

In this gallery, Berlant’s representational work stands out. His 1992 work “The Cops and Me” engages the viewer in a cinematic composition and storytelling. This work is also entrenched in art history since it resembles the Mexican folk craft tradition of “retablos,” with its naïve painted surface and its use of text to describe the work’s narrative.

Moving on, the “Artist Workshop” gallery presents painting and sculpture by John Balistreri. A student of Voulkos, Balistreri became an assistant in the Jun Kaneko studio in his formative years. He is now an internationally known artist and teacher, as well as an innovator in the development and use of 3D printing technology for the creation of ceramic objects.

At a glance, one can easily connect Balistreri’s ceramic work with Voulkos’s sculpture. The sculptures are monumental in size and maintain a subdued color palette, and when Balistreri applies color on his ceramics, they are toned down. However, Balistreri prefers rounder surfaces and more symmetrical compositions compared to Voulkos.

His non-representational canvases are formalistic experiments in color and texture. Unlike his sculptural work, Balistreri generously coats his canvases with colors, letting paint drip down. His gestural application of paint is recorded through color patches, dots, and matrix-like structures.

On the upper-level, installation works by Chakaia Booker are presented in one gallery, while Kaneko’s contribution to Opera costume design is examined in another.

Chakaia Booker, “Manipulating Fractions” | Tires & stainless steel

Entering Booker’s gallery space, all the senses are activated. Her intimidating sculptures and installations made of tires exude an industrial smell of treated rubber. One is greeted by a portal surrounded by stacked tires, with rubber shards protruding into space.

Other, less menacing works are installed in the room, but with droopy rubber shards. Small-scale monochromatic prints next to her sculptures are scribbled with an abstracted written language.

The final gallery space in the show is titled “The Opera House.” The focus of this space is on Kaneko’s design of three major opera productions: “Madama Butterfly,” “Fidelio,” and the “Magic Flute.” The works presented are a mixture of artwork, sketches, costume design, and mock-ups of clothing and theater stages.

The “Madama Butterfly” section provides the most material on Kaneko’s creative process, with costume and stage sketches. His figures appear to be plucked from ukiyo-e woodblock prints and decorated with Japanese folk costume in Kaneko’s notable color scheme. The Kimono-style dress in this space appears authentic; something a person would wear rather than a costume for a theatrical production.

Whimsically, two mock-up costume designs lead the way to the next section in the galleryz: “Fidelio.” Like the Kimono dress in “Madama Butterfly,” the commanding 1940s/1950s costume dress in this gallery appears too convincing to be a costume. The works surrounding the dress follow Kaneko’s simplified and austere use of color, focusing on black lines on white backgrounds.

Costumes for the performers of the Dance Collective at the Open Space Soirée fundraiser.

In between “Fidelio,” and “Magic Flute,” a model stage is situated with tiny dancing figures wearing Kaneko’s folkloric costume designs. The costume in the “Magic Flute” section is distinct from those in “Madama Butterfly” and “Fidelio” because it is totally unwearable outside of Opera. The plum-colored Elizabethan gown and headpiece are covered in sequins. Mounted on the wall are ceramics with twirling ribbons, which are repeated in the production’s poster as winding snakes.

Also presented in the gallery are Kaneko’s well-known abstracted bust sculptures. These small-scale works are modestly adorned with primary colors and simply patterned with polka dots and stripes.

This space, dedicated to Kaneko’s opera work, primed the viewer for the recent production of “Madama Butterfly” last weekend at the Orpheum Theater with set and costumes designed by Kaneko.

The Influence season attests to Kaneko’s impact on a world stage, and especially the Omaha art community. In Omaha, there is virtually no cultural venue where a Kaneko sculpture cannot be found. He has thoroughly influenced Omaha and its creative community.

Influence season will run through August 2020 at KANEKO located at 1111 Jones Street. Hours for the exhibition are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday 11 AM to 5 PM and Thursday 11 AM to 8 PM. For more information call 402-341-3800 or visit www.thekaneko.org.

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