Ceramics Artist to Know: Matthias Kaiser

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By Kelsey Keith / Published by Dwell
Vienna-based potter Matthias Kaiser blends Japanese ceramics technique with quirky modernism.

Matthias Kaiser, a ceramics artist based in Vienna, says that—despite a sprawling body of sculptural work—his vocation remains "to make pots." Kaiser studied product design with a focus on ceramics at Parsons School of Design in New York and at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. He did two apprenticeships with potters in Seto and Karatsu, Japan. And, it should be noted, his studies have not only entailed pots: "Not directly related to the craft, I studied Sufi mysticism for more than a decade with a dervish in Tehran."

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Austrian ceramist Matthias Kaiser experiments with a stunning range of experimental glazes for his pottery, while his sculptural influences range from traditional Japanese pottery to music: "I constantly think about shapes and surfaces, so any glimpse, thought or sound has the potential to germinate into an idea."

About his process, Kaiser says he focuses first on the inherent qualities of ceramic, "trying to reveal, not hide, what is there and has been done and to give respite from the world of contrived concepts and passing excitement." His work, which is on first glance deceptively simple, pays homage to the "alchemical transformation of earth into stone and glass." The result is a heady, tactile mix of recognizable objects (pots, bowls, vases) rendered compelling with experimental finishes and exaggerated shapes. 

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Two examples of Kaiser's irreverent Wayward vase silhouette. In the version at left, the cylinder plus sphere combo has a textured surface made by treating dark clay with slip, iron ore, sanding, and repeated firings. The version at right has a platinum overglaze over a matte metallic glaze.

When did you first start making ceramics? Before university or during? What was the first piece you made that you liked?
I threw my first pot at Parsons school, when I studied product design. At that time I really liked a lot of the ceramics I made, it was a new thing to me and my knowledge was very limited. I indulged in the creative process, it was fun. That is the reason why I decided to continue. I remember an early teapot with a curled-up handle that I gave to a girl that I liked, so I must have liked the pot.

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Kaiser's red cups are a study in contrasts between fluid bodies and textured bases, glossy and matte surfaces. The porcelain vessels were dipped in red slip and fired, changing in color to mottled pink. The interiors are glazed with glossy blue. His Kangen oribe cups employ the same oribe copper glaze, but each one reacts differently with colored engobes to produce very different shades, "especially when fired in strong reduction."

How did your training at Parsons and your training in Vienna differ?
It was more balanced at Parsons, evenly divided between the theoretical and practical. At the university of applied arts in Vienna it was focused on industrial mass produced design and my approach was very much looked down upon. One of the professors called it "self-discovery pottery". They have since done away with the ceramics department altogether.

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For his celadon-glazed Wayward vase series, Kaiser created and then joined two volumes, then carving deep grooves into the thicker bottom half. "With its eccentric chimney-like neck, the vessel conjures up the image of industrial architecture," Kaiser says. The tall vase comes with a shorter companion.

And outside of disciplined ceramics practice, how has your study of Sufi mysticism influenced what you make?
It used to have a strong influence on my designs and decorations, but I have totally changed that now and hardly ever paint on my ceramics anymore. In my business dealings I am still influenced by the philosophy, I guess. It has added a compassionate dimension that is sometimes misunderstood but has become second nature.

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Newer designs include a Brancusi-inspired wall vase (left), in which eight conical, cup-like segments have been joined. Kaiser's Stack Vase resembles an upright clay caterpillar in what he describes as a "deliberate kiln accident": The cavity is made from 13 bottomless bowls, which were made and glazed seperately but then fired in a stack and therefore fused together.

Would you define yourself as a "designer"? Why or why not?
If a designer is someone who makes something original then I am certainly one. Usually I call myself a potter or ceramic artist, because designer sounds more and more like someone who merely thinks up designs and leaves it to the artisan or factory worker to execute them. I don't like the elitist ring to it. Plus it rarely leads to a convincing outcome. The term's use is also inflationary. In my opinion a thorough understanding of the materials one uses is essential.

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In Kaiser's snow white Assembled series, porcelain pitchers (right) and soy sauce pourers (left) are put together from separately glazed parts. The pitcher is complex but entirely functional for serving beverages; it comprises a cylindrical base, a shoulder and neck, an opening that's "halfway closed with a slab-roof" to prevent spillage, and a spout made from a halved vessel with a built-in sieve.

Whose work do you admire? Who do you relate to in terms of approach, materials, form?
The work of many Japanese ceramists has a lot of depth, but that of Koie Ryoji, Kouichi Uchida and Takuro Kuwata also has incredible originality.

What do you dream of making that you have yet to try?
I am currently exploring lost-wax bronze casting and hope to be able to realize the first pieces next year.