Dirk Staschke, Tip Toland, Patti Warashina and Charles Krafft are among the master ceramists whose work is on display at Bellevue Arts Museum's "Clay Throwdown!," where the art of ceramics displays brilliantly protean possibilities.

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A city skyline, a circle of gossips, a series of gold-and-feather-adorned “fetish bowls.”

The range of subjects and techniques on display in “BAM Biennial 2010: Clay Throwdown!” at the Bellevue Arts Museum is striking. And the quality of the best work is stellar.

“Clay Throwdown!” is the first installment in BAM’s new exhibition series focusing on artistic talents of the greater Pacific Northwest (Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho and British Columbia). Scheduled to run every two years, the juried exhibit will focus on a different artistic medium or theme with each show.

For “Clay Throwdown!,” 33 artists were selected from more than 170 submissions. Some are represented by single pieces or large-scale installations. Others have multiple offerings on display.

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In the mini-exhibit category: Ken Shores’ assorted chalices, totems and “fetish bowls,” and Frank Boyden’s seven ceramic pieces and 21 etchings tracing the adventures of a skeletal figure named Uncle Skulky.

Still, the most powerful work is found among the more monumental pieces and installations.

Dirk Staschke’s “My Beautiful Nothing,” winner of the BAM Biennial’s $5,000 John & Joyce Price Award of Excellence, is one of the latter. It features two cornucopias of fruit and vegetables pouring down a gallery wall onto a tabletop pile of half-eaten squashes and spilled viscera.

Staschke cites 16th-century vanitas painting, with its focus on our ephemeral attachment to worldly goods, as an influence on his work. He is a deserving winner — but he has some sterling competition.

Tip Toland’s “Avadhut,” portraying a laughing Indian mystic in stoneware clay, gold leaf, paint and pastel, is a gloriously animated piece: the perfect expression of visionary ecstasy.

Kathy Venter’s “Coup D’Oeil,” with its five strong larger-than-life female nudes built from plaster-spattered terra-cotta, is more stately but no less impressive.

The circle of figures that make up Patty Warashina’s “Gossipmongers” are executed with vibrant precision as their game of Telephone takes a potentially explosive turn.

Explosions of a different sort are the focus of Richard Notkin’s “53 tiles,” a terra-cotta collage that powerfully addresses the human costs of the American war effort in Iraq.

Charles Krafft, maker of porcelain “Disasterware” and other ceramic subversions, is at it again with his “National Futurist Object for Stefano C.,” depicting Kim Jong Il, Amy Winehouse and other “tabloid baddies,” as Krafft dubs them.

His exquisite technique is, as usual, in taut ironic contrast with his uproarious subject matter.

Chris Antemann puts a bawdy spin on rococo porcelain figurines of the 18th century with “A Slip Betwixt the Cup and the Lip” and two other elaborate pieces.

This playful trio of works is accompanied by nine large-scale digital photographs taken by Kendrick Maholt that highlight just how intricately detailed and lively Antemann’s flirty figurines are.

“Stadtbild, ” by Sequoia Miller, transforms stoneware vessels into an archetypal Manhattanlike skyline, while “Nuisance, Bread Crumbs, and the Pedestrian” by Jason Walker takes two humbler urban phenomena — pigeons and traffic lights — and creates a striking composition that’s busy in both two and three dimensions.

There is, to be sure, some lackluster work on show. But the best pieces handily outweigh any disappointments.

Museum viewers can weigh in themselves by voting for their favorite works this month and next. The winner will receive the $5,000 Samuel & Patricia Smith People’s Choice Award at an Oct. 28 reception.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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