You could tell how people felt about ceramics by the way they referred to the 40th annual conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, held in Portland last week. If they referred to it acronymically as "NCECA" (trendily pronounced as "In Seka"), you could safely assume they were devotees. If they called it "that thing for the clay-heads," you could bet they were about as excited by ceramics as they were by macramé, quilting bees, and whimsical autumn centerpieces made out of gourds. But lo and behold, among the dozens of gallery shows devoted to ceramics this month in honor of the conference, several standouts elevated the form to the ranks of the cutting-edge.
At Ogle's genre-defying show, Dawn Stetzel used porcelain debris to form a brittle, rectangular carpet called Shards. Rebecca Hutchinson's piece, which was hung from the ceiling, simply defies description. OK, okay, here's a try: If you took a giant, puckered foreskin, knitted it into a sweater, then hung the sweater on a clothesline to dry, it would look like Hutchinson's piece. (Now there, don't you wish I'd just left it at "defies description"?) Rain Harris offered a big, white production number on a pedestal, encrusted with rhinestones and sprouting a giant plume of feathers. Imagine a Fabergé egg crossed with Carmen Miranda. (310 NW Broadway, 227-4333. Closes April 1.)
At PDX, Bean Finneran's shrublike ceramic squiggles were resplendent in lavender, orange, and lime green, all with contrasting tips. The largest work was a white, wreath-type composition in the round that resembled a dog's exercise pen. Remarkably, these exotic, alien works are constructed without glue or other binding agents, held together only by gravity. First Thursday gallerygoers gawked at the pieces through the windows, since PDX director Jane Beebe is "playing it by ear, month to month," as to whether she stays open late for First Thursdays or simply closes up at 6 pm, thumbing her nose at the lemon-dropping hoi polloi. (925 NW Flanders St., 222-0063. Closes April 1.)
At Elizabeth Leach, Richard Notkin took ceramics in a wittily political direction with his freeze-frame image of George W. Bush, composited from myriad tiles inscribed with skulls, atom bombs, and the hooded prisoners at Abu Ghraib. (417 NW 9th Ave., 224-0521. Closes April 1.)
Perhaps the only thing more absurd than Dubya's presidency is the fat, pink ceramic pig at Woolley at Wonder, a piece called Bittersweet by Rebekah Bogard (see last week's Visual Arts review at wweek.com for a photo). The Reno, Nevada-based sculptor has incorporated anime imagery into this marvelous, ridiculous icon, taking a line from Jeff Koons and inspiring by far the most spirited comments overheard about any work of art showing in Portland this month.
(128 NE Russell St., 224-5475. Closes April 1.)