In Harold Schlotzhauer's art, beauty will be nothing if not kinetic.
The paintings, prints and mixed-media works in his exhibition "Living in a Good Dream," which surveys his art from the 1980s to the present, all strive for movement. His free-hand lines swirl in broad curves or maintain abrupt hard edges. Buses, whirring tops, and other visual references appear among the brightly colored grids and abstracted lines, which stir the eye around the piece.
He wants the gestures to have "a before, a now and an after," he said. When you look at them, "you almost sense the process of it being made."
Sometimes, Schlotzhauer doubles down on his love of motion by painting on objects like surfboards, wooden skimboards, skateboards, kites, and cutout plywood snowboard "decks." The shapes of the boards are appealing in and of themselves, he said, and also imply movement.
"Even if I didn't snowboard and surf, I may still be painting them just because of their beautiful forms," he said.
He sticks with skiing these days and had to give up long-boarding years ago. His love of the sports, and using their paraphernalia as a canvas, frequently leads to confusion about his age. Schlotzhauer, 77, surfed when he was younger, back in the Bay Area before he got too busy with art school. Snowboarding took over when he moved to Bozeman in 1980 to start teaching at Montana State University, where he's now a professor emeritus.
"I came here because it was the only place I knew where if I had a split schedule ... I could go up and ride powder in the morning and go teach classes in the afternoon," he said.
When Schlotzhauer's work was shown at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, the gallery comment book was returned to him with variations on "rad" and disbelief at his age, he said.
It's not quite fair to give the boards all the credit. Schlotzhauer said he wants his work to be exciting, and backs that up with a neon-gleaming palette, graffiti-like lines and a Pop Art-like sense of glee.
"Living in a Good Dream," which was inspired by the YAM exhibition, takes over the main gallery at the Missoula Art Museum. Senior Curator Brandon Reintjes said the MAM had followed his work for years and "gives credit to the YAM for giving the impetus to re-examine Harold's career."
Schlotzhauer's appeal to all age brackets played a part as well. In the fall, the MAM tries to arrange exhibitions for that gallery that will provide solid ground for its Fifth Grade Art Experience, which brings in thousands of schoolkids for tours and projects.
His love of painting on boards is engaging as well. He spent a year teaching in Japan, which spurred a love of kites, which he began using as canvases as well. Not only are their unusual shapes a bonus, but they allow for display possibilities: on the wall, hanging from the ceiling and more.
Schlotzhauer graduated with a BFA and an MFA from the California College of Arts and Crafts, out in Oakland.
"There was a lot of stimulus in the Bay Area, both from school and outside of school," he said.
The early '60s were busy for him - he paid the private-school tuition during his undergrad years, working in a cafeteria during the school year and cannery during the summer, and got a full-ride for his MFA, in which he explored "his own version" of a more minimalist style with touches of pop art and abstract expressionism.
By the 1969, he was finished with school and was hanging out with other local artists when a short-lived movement coalesced.
"We loved having a sense of humor about everything that was going on, so we reacted to the seriousness of the New York School, and we were all going our own way," he said.
In her catalog essay, Elizabeth Guheen, a former YAM curator, writes that the movement, first called "Funk Art" and later "Nut Art," were an attempt to "quantify the concept that in Bay Area-produced art there were no rules or restrictions. Their work embraced humor, satire, anarchy, personal mythologies, alter egos, mixed media, landscapes, figuration, and all forms of arts, including cartoons, text, performance, installation and appropriation."
Schlotzhauer began teaching right out of graduate school, which liberated him in a way.
"Once you establish a way of making a living through art, which is teaching, I felt no pressure to try and move to New York and posture myself to the market and sell work that would be salable and be recognized for a certain kind of image and way of doing it. I could just do whatever I wanted," he said.
Here in Montana, Reintjes said Schlotzhauer "fits in the continuum of modernism that was happening" alongside artists like George Gogas, Jim Poor and Robert and Gennie DeWeese, to name a few.
They were "dealing with the fall-out of abstract expressionism and pop art, and many of the artists in the state were trying to find the way forward, and because of that you see some remarkable visual similarities."
Schlotzhauer describes the working method he came up with as a form of problem solving.
"My idea, in a way, is when I start a piece of work, is to not have one, is just to get on with it and start the adventure," he said, "and then react to what I put down, and then react again, and of course inevitably near the end of anything it gets to be very difficult, because you're really trying to pull it all together."
He thinks it's important to have "visual poetry" and specific formal elements so that viewers will return to the work over and over. He also wants viewers to generate new interpretations each time, and so he treasures ambiguity, regardless of whether some people might find it frustrating.
"Everybody wants to how everything works and what it is and everything has a function and everything is logical and we have to have a reason for it, and we have to know what it is and all of that," he said.
If a piece of art can defy all those needs, "then isn't that wonderful?" he asked. "That there's something that is enigmatic, and you can't necessarily figure it out, but you can come back to it and gain a new realization for it every time you look at it. In other words, you never really completely understand what it is but you can actually form your own imaginative conclusions over and over again."
The phrase "Western artist" is typically used for nostalgic realism. Schlotzhauer, an outdoorsy Californian who's lived in Montana for decades, argues that he's a Western artist.
If you consider the idea of manifest destiny as "being on the edge of the wilderness" and "going to new land," then he sees his work as Western.
"I would say the new manifest destiny is probably surfing 100-foot waves and riding some deep powder on your snowboard, you know?" he said.
Taking the idea further, he's inspired by the mountains, forest and rivers — he's floated the Smith River an enviable amount of times — but those experiences work their way into his art in a "cumulative way" rather than a direct visual representation. He taught representational art for years, and said those sorts of artists think about form in similar ways to abstract artists.
"Great representational artists understand how to put forms together to make their representation go beyond just a photographic image of something," he said. Before they paint a chair, they consider how a picture needs to work, with shape and volume and color.
He doesn't directly paint trees or a river, but absorbs "the forms that come out of those objects."
"You know that's more important to me. I try to create my own wilderness," he said.