Steve Muhs' portfolio of artwork includes a collage of air conditioners and another of frozen burritos. Yet another is solely made up of Hillary Clinton faces. He cuts the images out of magazines and pastes them to the paper, sometimes cramming them into a corner of the page, other times filling the white space entirely. Besides the compositions, he has drawings made with blue pen—an image of a shampoo bottle, for instance—and a series of colorful abstract shapes created with his computer.
Muhs often incorporates a title or phrase that feels like a clue. One computer drawing is called "The Authorities" and depicts a small orange square inside a large green square with lines coming off the side like the object is in motion. Another is titled "The Theatre of Cruelty: A Melodrama in One Act," and features a cutout picture of a person dressed as a tiger. His paintings, currently on display at Missoula's Clyde Coffee, include renderings of wild animals, plus a watercolor of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and a poem that is made up of only the word "zero" repeated down the page.
And here's where it becomes tempting to talk about Muhs in some high-minded, art criticism way. What does it all mean? If there's no meaning, then how do we categorize his work? He definitely could be called art brut, part of the anti-fine art movement named by Jean Dubuffet and that includes graffiti artists, children and other raw expressionists. Or perhaps he could be shoehorned into Dadaism because of his avant-garde expression through found objects.
But hanging out with Muhs on a recent Friday afternoon, it dawned on me that while all of those labels fit fine, the answer to what it all means is much more simple. The 55-year-old artist wears Carhartts and grins through a wild silver beard. When I ask him, "Why the collage of Hillary Clinton?" I expect an answer that speaks to the current political landscape. Instead, Muhs laughs with uncynical glee and shrugs his shoulders. "It's funny," he says. "I like Hillary. And I just thought it was a funny thing to do."
Muhs spends his time between Darby and Wolf Point, where his wife teaches at a school. He sometimes makes furniture and he and his son are working on building a printmaking studio, but mostly Muhs makes mountains of art. Some of it is entirely based on what makes him laugh, like Hillary and the burrito compositions.
"One thing I discovered is vinyl siding," he says. "Vinyl siding is interesting. They have fake wood vinyl siding and fake stone and fake brick, and you can put it on the inside or outside of your house. That's pretty weird, isn't it? I think it's really weird. So I like to use that."
But there's also a genuinely serious adoration that Muhs has for the offbeat pieces he constructs. Flipping through his folder of art, he stops at a photograph he took of one of his sculptures—uncooked macaroni glued to cardboard and the entire thing painted gold. He smiles at it with the kind of warmth a person does with a picture of their grandchild. "I love it a lot," he says. "I do."
Muhs' raw style belies his traditional training. He got his undergraduate degree at Western Montana University in Dillon. He spent one year at the Cleveland Art Institute before dropping out "for a bunch of different reasons." Afterward, he got a master's in art from Eastern Illinois University. Though his explanation for why he likes making art comes down to simple pleasure, he is keenly aware of art traditions and the contemporary art world. He might not like academia, but he seems to understands it rather well, and he's clearly an independent learner.
His heroes are conceptual poets like Kenneth Goldsmith and Gary Sullivan, whose early "Flarf" poems used random Internet searches and found phrases as material. He likes the Minimalists. One of his pieces—white paint on newspaper—was inspired by Julian Schnabel's white-on-white paintings. He has a series consisting of colors and shapes, which is a nod to Robert Motherwell's "Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive."
"Most regular art I can't stand," Muhs admits. "All the classical stuff—I don't like it, man. It's like, 'So what? Whoop de doo.'"
His compositions are, he admits, making fun of formal composition taught in schools. In fact, the more Muhs talks about his inspirations, the clearer it is that his art is winking at hidden meanings and engaging rebelliously with the conventional art world.
"I didn't study art until I went to Cleveland and somebody took me to the museum there," he says. "It was abstract art, sculpture mostly. It blew my mind. I thought, 'What the heck is this stuff?' And that's when it happened. That's when I became an artist."
Muhs finds himself on the outside. His work mostly shows at coffee shops and small-town galleries, like Aunt Dofe's Hall of Recent Memories in Willow Creek, Mont., but he's been in the mainstream spotlight a few times, too—once at the Seattle Center and also, in 2010, at the Missoula Art Museum for a solo exhibit, I Have a Coffee Table. In a statement about Muhs' work, former MAM curator Steve Glueckert wrote: "Muhs is an educated and formally trained artist who has taken an idealistic approach to aesthetics. He ... eschews traditional standards of beauty in favor of what he believes to be a more authentic and human approach to art-making. Underlying his raw drawings is a sophisticated and savvy sense of humor."
It's so easy to see that combination of sophistication and wit when you spend enough time with Muhs and his work. And it's easy to start entertaining the absurd, too. What if Rodin's "The Thinker" was thinking about Eggo Waffles, as one of Muhs' collages suggests? He might be an outsider in the fine art world, but his ideas have a charm and inclusiveness that wouldn't be out of place on a Twitter feed.
"I don't really like being called an outsider," he says. "I don't understand that. I guess I don't know I'm breaking rules. I'm just doing what I want to do."
Steve Muhs' exhibit continues at Clyde Coffee through January.