Step into the largest gallery at the Missoula Art Museum, and you'll be greeted by a gadget resting on a shelf that looks much like a microscope from a distance, only a little funkier and more homemade the closer you get. Instead of metal, it was built from pieces of wood painted black.
In place of lenses, there are some arms with pencils positioned over a piece of paper where the slide would be. Crank the handle and the pencils will turn in circles, producing a drawing much like the one framed on the wall next to the machine.
Even after you've cranked the handle, it remains modern and whimsical at once: a piece of art that makes art, if the viewer breaks the museum taboo of touching a sculpture.
Elsewhere in the gallery, artist Stephen Glueckert had numerous kinetic sculptures, some with pointed social commentary and the humor of outrage. In "Blood on the Tracks (On the Road Again)," a white couch-potato rat sits atop a rail-car with a base painted like a football field. It's swigging a beer and watching "The Muppets." Crank the handle, and its car speeds over a rat with darker fur, splitting its less privileged counterpart in half.
Others are more humorous, and on a gray weekday morning the gallery silence was broken by occasional laughter as a few visitors cranked the handles to see what would happen.
Glueckert retired last year as senior curator at the MAM, after nearly a quarter-century in total with the institution. Among the many things that job shares with the prolific volume of art he produced, it's a sense of engagement with the viewer: with the art, with art history, with their own hands and their own perspectives.
"I'm hoping there's a uniqueness to it so that it could be considered art, which is unique and isolated and contains a central idea," he said.
The MAM exhibition "All Mixed Up" surveys Glueckert's career from the 1970s to the present, in the myriad series of works he's made: board games, alternate-reality chess boards, kinetic sculptures, drawing machines, drawings of drawing tools, books of two-dimensional works, and drawings of viewers in museums looking at artwork.
"Each piece points to a whole body of work," said Brandon Reintjes, senior curator, and John Calsbeek, associate curator, who selected the pieces for the show.
One artwork might represent a series of 20. At the moment, Glueckert has at least two other exhibitions at other venues: "The Blind Men and the Elephant," a series of large drawings is on display at the Emerson Center for the Arts and Culture in Bozeman; 40 small interactive works reference the landscapes.
"He'll work through an idea in countless iterations," Reintjes said. "You end up with this body of work and you keep driving at it till you get to the heart of the matter."
After it comes down from the MAM, "All Mixed Up" will be shown at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, along with the Nicolaysen Museum of Art in Casper, Wyoming, and Pritchard Art Gallery at the University of Idaho-Moscow.
He produces the prolific amount of work at a home studio, often bringing pieces out on worktables in the summertime.
"I don't have trouble with time," Glueckert said. "It's not a work routine."
Glueckert was born in Missoula, where his father worked at Missoula Textiles, the historic laundry a block away from the MAM.
He's the middle child, with four older brothers and four younger brothers.
When he was 9, the family moved to Great Falls and he was raised in the area.
His father ran a laundry, the family business, there. The exhibition catalog notes his maternal family introduced industrial laundry to the Northwest. Running such an operation required someone like his father, who had a "mechanical mind" that his children inherited. Glueckert and his brothers helped out at the laundry and with projects at home, giving Glueckert mechanical skills that would later prove useful to a sculptor.
Asked when in his childhood he first began trying art, he said, "When I look back on it, we were all around it. We might not have understood it as art, but we were certainly, always encouraged to work with our hands, whether that was building things, constructing things, making furniture."
His mother was passionate about music and storytelling, which also had an effect on him.
"By the time we became teenagers, each of us at different times worked on farms in the summertime. Certainly, on a farm you're around a lot of machinery, and some of the same important aspects of mechanical understanding occur on the farm with balance, centrifugal force, hydraulics," he said.
He had early inklings that he wanted something else, but also that he was learning something he could put to use.
"I'm just saying as a teenager, when you're out there fixing a baler, you know a thought crosses your mind that one day you'll do something creative with this. This isn't the end of life, that you're fixing the baler. Can you make a thousand bales in a day? Well, that's not the meaning of life. There's more to it. It's an important aspect of life, but it's not the story of life. Not that I think you understand the story of life. I think you have the desire to do something more.
Neither his parents or grandparents went to college, and his folks savored and encouraged the opportunity for him. He studied art at the University of Idaho in Moscow, and earned a master's in art education at Western Washington University in Bellingham.
He began making some of the assemblage-sculpture games back in college, outside of his academic work, and a visit to an exhibition by artist H.C. Westermann had a large effect on him.
"There was no fear in how he was approaching his work," Glueckert said. "He did not fear combining form and language, he did not fear combining sculptural aspects and furniture, he did not fear being accused of being a folk artist. He was oblivious to the division of high art and low art. Who cares if that's what you can do?" he said.
Other pieces in the show reference his influences: Another early assemblage piece is called "Your Move, Marcel," pointing at the time that Duchamp claimed he was setting art aside for a year to learn to play chess.
His interest in Westermann and another polar influence are joined in "Overcoming the Russell Factor."
The 1993 assemblage sculpture depicts the Western art icon Charlie Russell, whose museum looms large in Glueckert's hometown and the state. Glueckert paints the icon in the garb of "The Blue Boy," a portrait in oil of a young aristocrat dressed all in blue that Thomas Gainsborough painted in 1770. In the 1930s, Glueckert said the picture was mass-produced and sent through the schools as an example of fine art.
"Americans were learning that their art history was European," he said, without references to contemporary, indigenous, folk or other forms of art. To reference say, indigenous art and the landscape, the assemblage piece is decorated with feathers on its bottom edge.
Russell looms over the state's tradition of painting and Glueckert says many artists get "stuck" at his Western romanticism.
"He was doing the art of his day, he was doing contemporary art," he said.
"I am a Russell nut. But I don't think getting stuck in the mud is a good idea."
Racism, both nationally and in Montana, figure in his works. In a kinetic sculpture, two rats, one white and one red, race toward the finish line. A metal clamp prevents the red rat from getting too far. The piece is accompanied by a poem about a childhood friend who was Native, and the way they didn't realize how segregated their worlds were.
"You'd think two generations ago Montana was essentially experiencing apartheid. We were not very far from South Africa, certainly 50 years ago," he said, although he has hope for the future.
Lately, Glueckert has been more focused on drawings. One series in the show are drawings of drawing tools and machines.
"If I draw them, I know I can make them, so then I don't have to make them. The drawings can stand on their own. So I have hundreds of those drawings of drawing tools," he said.
In a new set of drawings, viewers observe pictures in a museum, with visual puns on the contrast between rural life and high art: An “American Gothic” couple viewing “American Gothic.” In another, drawn in graphite and cattle marker, a cowboy scratches his head while staring at a blank expanse slightly broken up by a ghostly blue expanse of color. Glueckert calls it "Cowboy Looking at James Turrell," a reference to the artist whose work is primarily concerned with the effects of light.
Another series uses text and simple shapes and colors for a pointed comment about his love of folk art. One says "Primitive But Modern," a description that an attendant at a museum in Oaxaca gave him when they were entering a folk art exhibit. He began riffing on that idea for other drawings, such as one called "Terrible Yet Beautiful."
There was only piece in the show that he described as a self-portrait, a work called "11 Things to Remember."
The assemblage sculpture has the feel of a tall, narrow closet offering a view into Glueckert's personality. Lamps illuminate tchotchkes like a small blue boat, hammers and rulers and drawing tools.
His Montana roots, which stretch back over a century, are on display, too: A stuffed duck sits at the bottom, and a set of antlers is mounted on the top of the sculpture. Inside a small drawer are filing cards and reminders to be better to your parents, and don't smoke, all the things he said you should remember while you go about your life.
On a small shelf rests a wood-carved Glueckert, his puppet-like arm holding a pencil over a piece of paper.
Walk up and turn the crank, and he starts drawing.