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Kaneko ‘Legends’ exhibit opens at Millennium Park

A new body work by Jun Kaneko resides secured walkway Millennium Park awaiting April 12 exhibit opening. The exhibit draws

A new body of work by Jun Kaneko resides in a secured walkway at Millennium Park awaiting the April 12 exhibit opening. The exhibit draws upon the myths and legends of the Tanuki figure. | Richard A. Chapman ~ Sun-Times

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‘Legends, Myths and Truths: Jun Kaneko’


♦ April 12-Nov. 3

♦ Boeing Galleries, Millennium Park, bordered by Randolph and Monroe streets on the north and south and Michigan Avenue and Columbus Drive on the west and east

♦ Free

♦ (312) 744-3316; or

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Updated: April 29, 2013 9:08AM

The word “ceramics” typically conjures small, fragile objects such as figurines, plates and vases, but a striking exhibition opening today in Millennium Park gives it a whole new meaning.

Building massive, works that defy the traditional bounds of the medium, Omaha, Neb., artist Jun Kaneko has strived for five decades to take clay sculpture out of the decorative arts and position it in the mainstream of contemporary art.

Thirty-five of his most recent works — the largest measuring nearly nine feet in height and weighing more than 1,900 pounds — will remain on view through Nov. 3 in the park’s two Boeing Galleries.

Co-presented by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and Millennium Park Inc., it is the fifth temporary exhibition in the twin outdoor spaces since they were completed in 2005.

Situated on the north and south sides of the park on terraces set back from Michigan Avenue, the galleries are on an axis with Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” — more popularly known as “The Bean.”

The visiting sculptures are large enough to hold their own amid the park’s many permanent artworks and other elements, but not too large to aesthetically clash with anything else.

Kaneko, a Japanese native who moved to the United States in 1963, studied with three noted pioneers of the contemporary ceramics movement — Peter Voulkos, Paul Soldner and Jerry Rothman. The foundation of his internationally acclaimed work has been abstract clay sculptures that incorporate basic, archetypal forms such as slabs and tiles.

The best known of these pieces is his on-going, instantly identifiable series of “Dangos,” a Japanese word meaning “rounded form” or “dumpling.” These standing works call to mind ancient menhirs, sharing the same formal presence and power.

Thirteen of the artist’s “Dangos” are carefully arrayed in the South Boeing Gallery, exuding their usual quiet elegance and Zen tranquility. Some have an elongated form resembling the end of giant broom handle, while others are slightly more flattened in shape.

Kaneko, a master of glazes, treats the smooth surfaces of these works as a kind of canvas. Some are adorned with his trademark, longtime looks, such as black dots allowed to run slightly in the firing process, while others have newer, more painterly decoration, like one with an open-square pattern overlaying Jackson Pollock-like splatters.

Offering a startlingly radical departure from these classic works, and indeed anything the artist has done before, is his rollicking “Tanuki” series, which Kaneko is showing publicly in the North Boeing Gallery for the first time.

The 22 comical 6- to 6½-foot figures, which look like something out of Japanese anime, should be an especially big hit with children. They were inspired by that country’s folklore in which the “tanuki” or “raccoon dog” recurs as a kind of mischievous trickster.

Kaneko has stuck largely to the traditional depiction of the tanuki figures, giving them identical pudgy, pot-bellied bodies with only slight variations to their mouths and snouts. They are exuberantly decorated in bright colors and rambunctious patterns.

Because of their size and similarities in form, it is easy to forget that each of the raccoon dogs (or “crazy bears,” as an onlooker on a recent afternoon not inaptly called them) is hand-constructed of clay — no small technical feat.

“I had a heckuva a time at the beginning,” Kaneko said. “I couldn’t believe it. A bunch of pieces started to crack and fall apart, and I couldn’t figure out why. I lost about five months. So, this was an interesting challenge.”

The two different sets of works present sharply contrasting sides of the artist’s work — a kind of aesthetic yin and yang — that come together in a satisfying whole that should prove as popular with casual passers-by as serious art lovers.

Kyle MacMillan is a local free-lance writer.

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