Consider the rustic tea bowl. That humble embodiment of artistic tradition has long dominated Japanese ceramics, and for good reason. Even in the American Midwest, Japan's utilitarian tableware has shaped the work of artists who have studied there or adopted Japanese techniques. It's in the DNA of all the handsome bowls and platters at urban art fairs and country studio sales from the Twin Cities to the Canadian border.

Yet in the post-World War II era, Japan also has nurtured another more venturesome style of ceramics -- sculptural, experimental, idiosyncratic and infused with international artistic trends. That's the direction represented in a saucy new exhibit, "New Millennium Japanese Ceramics: Rejecting Labels and Embracing Clay," opening Friday at the Northern Clay Center (NCC). The show concludes the center's 20th-anniversary year and, not incidentally, echoes the NCC's own evolution from a regional haven for functional pots into an international hub of ceramic art.

Founded by Minnesota potters as a studio and showroom for their mostly tabletop work, the Clay Center expanded its mission as the field changed. Its shop overflows with useful pieces by artisans from the region, but they're often more elaborately ornamented and colorful than in the early years. Generational shifts, the Internet and teaching patterns have sparked the flux, said Emily Galusha, the center's executive director, who will retire at the end of the year.

"There really were regional distinctions," said Galusha, recalling a visit to potters' studios in Massachusetts shortly after she started work at the center in 1994. "That work was so different from here, so much more floral and colorful. But now with the Internet, everybody is seeing everybody else's pots. College ceramics programs are growing, and graduates are traveling all the time, so a lot of the regional distinctions are going away. And there's a lot more interest in sculpture, surface decoration and color."

Over the years the center's exhibitions also have grown to embrace everything from industrial and architectural ceramics to traditional Angolan pottery, Danish sculpture and experimental Israeli pieces. Visiting art and artists have come from nations including England, Wales, Lithuania, Romania, Italy, Nigeria, India, South Korea, China and Japan. Similarly, NCC shows have traveled as far afield as New York galleries, the Italian Cultural Center in Toronto and the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C.

With funding from a mix of private and corporate sources, the center has also taken on big projects like the "New Millennium" show, which runs through Nov. 6 and features seven Japanese artists now working internationally. Two of them produced new work for the show during extended residencies at the Clay Center this summer; three shipped their work from Japan and the remaining two sent pieces from Austria and Mexico, where they now live.

"If your ambitions for the form are large, why not bring people from everywhere to do things that no one has done?" Galusha asked.

Function and forms evolve

Attitudes about ceramics also have changed dramatically in Japan in recent years. "Any Japanese housewife worth her salt works in a kitchen that is crammed with ceramics," said Matthew Welch, deputy director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and curator of Japanese art. But while whole villages remain devoted to the production of useful pottery and traditional pieces for tea ceremonies, other ceramicists are "creating very abstract forms that are nonfunctional, sculptural and stridently contemporary in their surface decoration," he said.

The "New Millennium" artists exemplify those crossover instincts. At first glance, the graceful sculptures of Makiko Hattori look a bit like oversized vases coated with delicate ivory or gray blossoms or smothered in fluted frosting. Her porcelain sculptures are sturdier than their wedding-cake fragility suggests but every bit as ethereal. Tokyo artist Kyoko Tokumaru also sculpts with porcelain, producing 3-foot-tall "bouquets" of pale undulating leaves, grasses, tubes and blossoms that appear to be lifted from the sea, and creamy-white wall plaques featuring the plumage of exotic birds garnished with chrysanthemum and poppy blossoms.

On a funkier note, Jumpei Ueda weaves Mexican motifs into droll, nonfunctional teapots whose eccentric designs seem to poke gentle fun at tea-ceremony pieties. He perches a miniature wrestling ring atop a teapot whose silvery surface is embossed with the fierce mask of a Mexican wrestler, and uses a Day-of-the-Dead skull as the finial for a skull-encrusted golden teapot. Other figurines incorporate stereotypical Mexican foodstuffs -- a garlic-headed boy, two avocado-headed businessmen.

Japan's obsession with big-eyed waifs and cartoon characters inspires Takashi Hinoda, who turns the manga figures into sleek three-dimensional sculptures whose airbrushed pastel surfaces have a seductive Disney-esque charm. Chiho Aono, who lives in Linz, Austria, sculpts strange, playful blob sculptures that appear to be simultaneously oozing and dripping or climbing the walls.

Working right down to the wire, Rina Hongo and Naoto Nakada were using their Clay Center residencies to make new work for their Minneapolis debut. Hongo made a set of delicate teacups as well as several enigmatic sculptures suggesting miniature landscapes; Nakada was still polishing up an installation this week.

"People are much more accepting of artists pushing the boundaries and embracing new concepts now," said Welch. "I see people really delighting in experimentation. They don't have to pledge allegiance to a tradition anymore." • 612-673-4431