View of “Michael Kaysen,” 2015.

View of “Michael Kaysen,” 2015.

Michael Kaysen

View of “Michael Kaysen,” 2015.

The exuberant pre-crash 2007 exhibition “Makers and Modelers: Works in Ceramics,” in which sixty-four ceramic objects by thirty-one artists crowded Chelsea’s Gladstone Gallery, was a watershed moment for the medium. Today, it’s difficult to remember a time when ceramics was largely relegated to the world of craft, where its forms were attentively cultivated, assessed, and distributed. Or an art world without Sterling Ruby’s basins or Jessica Jackson Hutchins’s slovenly ceramic and furniture sculptures. Michael Kaysen’s exhibition of twenty-one vessels, each titled Bottle and collectively dating from 2007 to 2014, served as a thoughtful counter to the narrative of “Makers and Modelers,” redirecting the discourse of contemporary ceramics back to pottery—where form is content, where structure and material are gracefully entangled, and where the philosophy of repetition and variation can be productively explored.

The colorful hand-thrown vessels—each with a swollen body, narrow neck, and slight opening—were displayed in regular intervals along a single twelve-foot shelf. The strategy of this tight, orderly installation allowed for striking contrast to the spacious street-facing gallery, whose empty interior thus took on an (anti)presence of its own. This presentation prompted a considered examination of each object, while also encouraging comparisons between the bottles’ silhouettes, lines, textures, and glazes. Kaysen’s invitation to analogize between the vessels was both underscored and complicated by the exhibition title “Look Long, Look in Vain,” suggesting that even within formal and technical sameness, inscrutability persists. All but two of the bottles were made via a postreduction process called raku, a highly unpredictable method of firing ceramicware in which glaze formation is contingent on temperature shifts within the kiln, resulting in finished surfaces that vary widely, from flat black to reflective metallic. One of the tallest bottles that was on display (dated 2007) is distinguished by a mottled copper finish that engulfs the vessel’s body, shoulder, and neck. With the exception of an off-white bottom and a light-green lip that articulates its unusually small opening, this object conveys an affinity to both burnished metalwork and glassy stoneware glazing.

Kaysen’s ongoing interrogation of the nearly closed-off bottle was inspired by a vessel-form series by the twentieth-century Austrian potters Gertrud and Otto Natzler, who collaboratively produced work from 1933 until 1971. The Natzlers gave their vertical bottles and vases restricted orifices, while their bowls were generally given more ample mouths. Kaysen’s equally narrow openings undercut the vessels’ functions to similarly sculptural effect. The tops of the vessels are marked by irregular cuplike lips that sit incongruously atop the symmetrical and familiar bottle shapes. An elongated white vessel (dated 2008) with severe cracking at the shoulder is crowned by a misshaped emerald-green spout, pinched at the neck and in constructive contrast to the wheel-built volume of the work’s ceramic body. In another work (also 2008), an undulating blue-green opening caps a bronzed and bumpy metallic cervix supported by a blotchy gray cylindrical profile. These two bottles were anomalies in the grouping; the rest of the vessels that were on display are topped with small clay disks articulating diminutive apertures in their centers.

There is no disguising the fact that these bottles were primarily made on the potter’s wheel. Horizontal indentations band most of Kaysen’s ceramics, revealing traces of the process by which spinning clay mass is pulled upward and coaxed into a hollow form. Heidegger writes in “The Thing” (1954) that “the empty space, this nothing of the jug, is what the jug is as the holding vessel.” The philosopher continues: “The potter who forms sides and bottom on his wheel does not, strictly speaking, make the thing . . . No—he shapes the void . . . The vessel’s thingness does not lie at all in the material of which it consists, but in the void that holds.” Kaysen, following in the footsteps of the Natzlers and other modern pottery artists, privileges this “thingness” of the void, in which utility is no longer primary and the vessel’s walls and surface are in concert with the trope of emptiness. Yet Kaysen is also compelled by difference and sameness in the familiar, compounding Heidegger’s assertion with the Deleuzian theory of repetition as a means of generating difference in his dedication to the bottle form.

Michelle Grabner