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Large ceramic sculptures, like elongated eggs, bring out the colors and forms of the Portland Japanese Garden

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND JAPANESE GARDEN/JONATHAN LEY - A Jun Kaneko sculpture stands in front of the Pavilion Gallery at the Portland Japanese Garden.

Jun Kaneko is a "go big or go home" artist. His giant ceramic heads and dumpling-shaped abstract forms can be found in public around the world, and now they are at the Portland Japanese Garden.

His work is perfect for the space: No moss will grow on his highly glazed surfaces, and raindrops shimmer in the eastern light.

The show, called Garden of Resonance The Art of Jun Kaneko runs through Feb. 20. It "explores the relationships between art, nature and people with their bold scale and placement," according to the website.

There's a quiet beauty to the eight outdoor forms, which are all untitled. Some of the oval ones are nicknamed dango, the name of a Japanese dumpling.

Aki Nakanishi, the garden's curator of culture, art and education, went to the artist's studio in Omaha, Nebraska, and chose the works, then worked with Kaneko on their placement in the garden for maximum "resonance".

Water is a theme, hence the tall blue sculpture in the reflecting pool at the entrance. Farther up the bioswale as you walk up the hill, one with a black, glazed top that appears to be weeping and staining its white base is placed next to a well. The well is lidded with stone, but running water is audible. (When the cultural center was revamped in 2019, the runoff from the hill was directed down this gully to a 27,000-gallon tank beneath the parking lot.)


Deep in the garden beside the pond, two bright blue pieces, one almost a sphere, the other another dango, sit on the grass. Amid the dominant greenery, their blue brings out the blue in surrounding features, such as the blue-gray river rocks and the denim jeans of tourists.

Two giant heads, one featureless, face each other in the main courtyard. Kaneko uses masking tape to paint black stripes on a marbleized white background. Visitors crowd around for group photos, squeezing between the heads, which are elevated to give them an Easter Island solemnity.

A tall, elongated dumpling sits on the gravel outside the Pavilion Gallery, like the floating spacecraft in the 2016 sci-fi movie "Arrival." Assistant Director of Exhibitions Sarah Kate Nomura said both the artist and the curator want the audience to find their own meaning in the work and to find where it resonates for them.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Looking good rain or shine, Jun Kaneko's sculptures are placed for maximum 'resonance' at the Portland Japanese Garden.

Kaneko, 80, is a Japanese American artist who has taught at prestigious art schools and maintains a warehouse-sized studio in Omaha. Kaneko primarily works in clay, but also in glass and bronze, and he paints. His studio includes industrial-size kilns. The biggest is 13 feet high, opens completely at the front, and has rails for moving the contents in and out.

Kaneko has worked with Portland's Bullseye Glass in the past and the Japan Society is funding this rare match of art to the garden. As Nomura said, the Japanese garden normally keeps its art in the galleries and lets the plants do the talking, but they made an exception for Kaneko. A series of slip-cast panels, large monochromatic squares, are displayed inside the Pavilion Gallery too.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - A Jun Kaneko sculpture sits in a well in a swale at the Portland Japanese Garden.

Smooth operator

The artist builds his large pieces, including the huge heads, by hand, as you would make a coil pot in Ceramics 101, building up piece by piece from the bottom and taking up to two years. Damp clay slumps the higher it is built up, so Kaneko has an elaborate drying process.

"It's a very physical activity," Nomura told Pamplin Media Group. "He uses his whole body to form the clay, and to move the glaze around."

Kaneko's assistants spend most of those years drying the clay slowly, so it doesn't crack or get a rough texture, swathing the pieces in plastic and removing it for a few hours a day. Kaneko doesn't just turn off the gas after the bisque and glaze firings, he reduces the heat slowly over days, sometimes weeks, to prevent cracking.

Ultimately, the works are placed for quiet impact, to enhance the natural landscape rather than overwhelm it. The garden looks good in any kind of weather. So do these objects.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Jun Kaneko's highly glazed faces at the Portland Japanese Garden are attracting tourists already.

Who is Jun?

Born in Nagoya, Japan, Jun Kaneko first arrived in the United States in 1963 and studied ceramic art from the leaders of the American Clay Revolution, including icons such as Peter Voulkos, Paul Soldner and Jerry Rothman. Kaneko, now an icon in his own right, is someone many might not know by name but may be familiar with via his vivid and dazzling public installations.

While Kaneko's Dango, named that because of their resemblance to Japanese dumplings, Tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs), and massive heads are among his more well-known works, Kaneko also has designed sets and wardrobes for touring opera productions such as "Madame Butterfly" and has had his glass art featured in town squares, gardens, libraries and houses of worship.

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