Ceramic-art shows at Bellevue Arts Museum and Seattle's Henry Art Gallery spearhead a huge wave of ceramic-art exhibits coming to the Seattle area, thanks to the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA), which is holding its 46th annual conference in Seattle.

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That rumbling sound you hear approaching Seattle?

It isn’t an earthquake. But it does have something to do with the ground beneath your feet: specifically, its clay content.

A massive wave of ceramic-art exhibits is going up in museums and galleries across the metro area, triggered by “On the Edge,” the 46th annual conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts. NCECA comes to Washington State Convention Center on March 28-31, and if you go to www.nceca.net, you’ll find a 53-page guide to more than 190 Seattle-area ceramic-art exhibits where clay is twisted and fired into just about every color and guise imaginable.

Two local museums, Bellevue Arts Museum and Henry Art Gallery, already have impressive shows in place. Both challenge notions of what ceramics are for and what can be done with them.

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“Push Play: The 2012 NCECA Invitational,” at BAM, takes a look at what’s going on in the international ceramics scene today. “Around the Bend and Over the Edge: Seattle Ceramics 1964-1967,” at the Henry, looks at what was happening in our region almost half a century ago.

“Push Play” features more than 30 artists of remarkably varied gifts, engaged in sometimes ominous games with their medium. While all the work is clay-centric, some of it incorporates other materials. “Come Undone,” by Eastern Washington artist Beth Cavener Stichter, is a prime example.

This stunning piece, which greets you at the top of the stairs as you enter the exhibit, is an enormous (think 30 feet long or so) gray stoneware wolf, crouched on tilting white pedestals and coughing up whole trains of pink feathers, fabrics and ribbons that sprawl a dozen feet across the floor. In a marvelously macabre touch, several strings of pink beads dangle like saliva from the wolf’s jaws.

Stichter calls the piece “a portrait of my secret selves,” and its blend of lupine ferocity and feminine frippery evokes the most complex and volatile masculine/feminine mix imaginable.

Anne Drew Potter’s installation, “The Captains Congress,” is just as striking and considerably more creepy. Its circle of more than a dozen female figures — some barely pubescent, others heavily pregnant — are in fierce, posturing argument with each other. One figure outside the circle, facing away from it, gives the viewer a stare as intense as it is impenetrable. Potter sees the piece as addressing “the deadly serious nature of role play and peer pressure.” She nails it.

One doesn’t think of ceramic art as being a photo-realist medium. But Judy Fox, with “Ayatollah” and “Nkondi,” pushes it in that direction. Her towering, casein-painted, terra cotta pieces vividly render two naked 7-year-old boys assuming adult postures of power and/or menace. The disconnect between the boys’ spriglike physiques and grown-up bearing is unsettling.

Clayton Keyes’ life-size “Bougie Putti” goes even further into transgressive territory. Its languidly reclining title figure, nude except for some lace finery around his wrists, is dining on a freshly killed rabbit that dangles from his left hand. The blood on his lips is as bright as lipstick. Like several other R-rated works in the show, “Bougie Putti” is anything but mere pottery.

Several smaller works in “Push Play” are equally eye-grabbing.

Megumi Naitoh’s screen-printing on earthenware, “6/12/2009,” plays lenticular-image tricks. Viewed from one angle, this rectangular wall-piece portrays an ordinary Laundromat. Viewed from another, it’s a futuristic landscape with a manga-like fantasy figure peering out of it.

With the six plates from his “Impression” series, Sam Scott, from Shoreline, links images of violence to neatly drawn TV remote controls. Other offerings in “Push Play” aren’t as provocative, but are just as witty and finely crafted. Maybe the feral and grotesque pieces stand out more because their twisted subject matter simply isn’t what you expect from “ceramic art.”

The Henry’s “Around the Bend and Over the Edge,” with its hundreds of works from the museum’s permanent collection, has both a more specific and a broader agenda than the “NCECA Invitational.” It confines its focus on Seattle in the 1960s and ’70s — and makes clear that, within these constraints of time and place, an extraordinary range of ideas was in play.

Fred Bauer, Patti Warashina and Clayton Bailey are among the local stars who parlayed clay into Op Art, Pop Art and Surrealist antics.

They all, as curator Martha Kingsbury notes, “subverted the vessel forms that were much admired at the time, using strategies both savage and satirical.

Bailey may be the most rambunctious prankster of all. His “Bigfoot (Sasquatch) skeleton,” from 1972, dominates its gallery. Close to 10 feet tall, it’s an impressively realistic creation in “bone” china (actually hand-built stoneware) that comes complete with a museum tag tied around its ankle.

Two other items by Bailey, “Mad Doctor Tea Set” and “Pin Head Torso,” look like R. Crumb cartoons translated into three dimensions. (Robert Arneson’s “George” does something similar with the dollar-bill image of the father of our country.)

Warashina’s early work couldn’t be more fun-filled. “Ketchup Kiss” is a giddily bright figure straight out of “Yellow Submarine.” In other pieces, she makes clay resemble everything from red brick to an Airstream trailer’s shiny exterior. By 1973, with “Serious Business,” Warashina’s work was less cartoonish, more mysterious and exquisitely crafted. This assemblage of stacked eggs, a tray and a checkered cloth, held up by outstretched disembodied hands, looks like anything but what it is: slip-cast, slab and hand-built earthenware with stains and luster.

Howard Kottler, another frequent presence in the exhibit, plays just as mischievously with the guises clay can take. In “Naughty Pine,” he engages in the ceramic equivalent of gender-bending as his earthenware is made to look like bleached logs, brown rope and a teapot made of lathe-carved wood.

“Around the Bend” isn’t all high jinks. Margaret Ford’s brilliant “Hokusai Wave” makes “accordions” of space as it transforms a classic Japanese image. Lars Husby’s “This Is Really a Cop-Out” and “Mr. Banana’s Fruit Jubilee Bust” are hauntingly hollow figures: uniforms as impeccable as they are empty of corporeal presence.

While 1960s/1970s Seattle is the central focus of the show, curator Kingsbury dips back into the 1950s and beyond to show what these ceramic rebels were rebelling against.

One whole gallery is devoted to the exchange between West Coast artists and traditional Japanese potters, and Robert Sperry — a professor at the University of Washington’s School of Art — was a pivotal figure here. In 1963, he made a documentary, “The Village Potters of Ondo,” that chronicles the making of exquisite Japanese ceramics on the island of Kyushu (the film is part of the exhibit).

Sperry himself would later take some “pop” detours from his vessel work, “Spirit of ’76” being a prime (and ghoulish) example. But his reverence for the Japanese ceramic aesthetic never faded. And the gallery that illuminates the Japan/ Pacific Northwest connection also underlines the link between pop sensibility and tradition with two clever juxtapositions.

Arneson’s “Oreo” (1967) and Bruce W. Kokko’s “Paint Can with Brush” (1965) are placed by Japanese vessels whose abstract patterns they echo so subtly they don’t even stand out among the tradition-bound pieces at first.

The constraints of tradition may have been rejected here in the 1960s. But the continuity of the medium, it seems, couldn’t help but prevail.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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