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"Decades" will lead viewers step by step from influential and innovative ceramic works in the late 1940s to the present.

The show, which will include about 50 pieces ranging from functional to sculptural, opens Thursday at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture.

"We thought we would work by decade and get some samples that were really iconographic, either specifically through form, through technique, through just general aesthetics," University of Montana ceramics professor Julia Galloway said.

Then the show can build decade by decade and demonstrate the progression in the field, through technical innovations and conceptual freedom, from straight pottery through to conceptual work and narrative.

The exhibition was curated by Galloway and MMAC curator Jeremy Canwell, culling work from the MMAC's extensive Permanent Collection.

The state has been home to influential contemporary ceramic artists, many of whom are represented in the show. Galloway said Montana's ceramics community is undergoing a "renaissance," and the show connects that work to recent history.

To navigate the works in the collection, the co-curators decided to work by decade and "cherry-pick" works that represent new techniques or styles of the time.

Some of the earliest works are by Henry and Peter Meloy, the former of whom helped found the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena. Another key figure is Frances Senska, who taught pottery at Montana State University — she was the first female ceramics professor in the state and possibly the Northwest, Galloway said. Among her students were Peter Voulkos and Rudy Autio, both of whom are represented in the show. Starting at the Archie Bray, the two "pushed against" the idea of ceramics as pottery in the 1950s, Galloway said. As an example were the Autio vessels in the MMAC collection, which are nearly 3 feet tall. She described the forms as "fearless" in a time when pottery was considered to be the realm of "nice, sweet little" teapots.

Voulkos' abstract-expressionist slabs pioneered the form as well, opening up the idea that "ceramics could be any kind of art," she said. Over time, artists in his wake "pushed it wide open."

Galloway said you can see the development of the field as a whole through the years. Abstraction opened up a divide between pottery and sculptural vessels. Generations build on technical innovations and better materials.

By the time you reach the late 1980s, artists like Tom Rippon produced intricate ceramic sculptures that would have been unthinkable before. David Shaner is represented with two pieces from the 1980s. Galloway said his technical and formal innovations are still studied by undergraduates. Imagery and narrative and representational sculpture come into play. Among the current artists, Randi O'Brien and Crista Ann Ames employ narratives, whether personal or more allegorical.

Leading contemporary figures like Beth Lo, Josh DeWeese and Shalene Valenzuela also are included.

Another aspect of the show, and the field as a whole, is its tight-knit nature, Galloway said. It's technically difficult, so artists tend to work together. It requires kilns and equipment, which also requires collaboration. That proximity lends itself to a kind of "propulsion," she said, where ceramicists will push each other and the medium forward.

Shown together, she said the works can have a conversation together and show how the artists reacted to each other: Leonard Stauch's funky hand-built, patchwork colored vessels from the 1960s make more sense in the context of a formal cup from the time period.

The show continues right up into the 2010s. The MMAC frequently purchases standout pieces from UM art students. "Early work has a tremendous energy to it," Galloway said. As an example, she cited an early piece by Sue Tirrell. A figure standing atop a horse shows the signs of where Tirrell was headed in her mature work.

"You have a sense of people who are really going to move and do something in the field," Galloway said.

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