Jeff Muhs’s Adventures in Art

Awarded top prize at Guild Hall’s 2018 members exhibition
Paintings in progress and two of his handmade chairs surrounded Jeff Muhs in his Southampton studio. Below, Mr. Muhs’s concrete and silk sculpture “Callipyge” won the top prize at Guild Hall’s 2018 members exhibition. Beth McNeill-Muhs

Having been awarded top prize at Guild Hall’s 2018 members exhibition by the juror, Connie H. Choi of the Studio Museum in Harlem, Jeff Muhs will have a solo exhibition there in 2020. “I’m thinking about the Guild Hall show not exactly as a retrospective but more as my adventures in art and all the different directions it has led my work,” he said recently in his Southampton studio. “Ten or 15 years ago I would never have conceived of my doing most of the work you see in this room.”

What is striking about Mr. Muhs’s work is not only that it shifts effortlessly between painting and sculpture and between abstraction and figuration but also that he relishes working in different styles simultaneously. A tour of his studio features concrete sculptures and abstract and figurative paintings, all made within the last few years.

Of his sculpture, he said. “Over the years it has gone from one thing to something different. In between it has gone back and forth. I push forward and experiment with different genres, and then I fold them back into my work as a whole.”

He was born in 1966 in Hampton Bays, just four miles west of his current residence. His father was a hunting and fishing guide and a wood sculptor, and by the age of 8 Mr. Muhs was spending sunrises and sunsets on the water with his father and creating wood sculptures of his own. In the early 1990s he won top prizes in four worldwide sculpture competitions at the Ward Museum in Maryland before putting sculpture aside for 10 years.

He purchased a small ranch house in the Shinnecock Hills in 2004 with the intention of building his studio there. During the renovation he did a little of everything, from designing to general contracting to some of the framing and most of the finish work.

“I used concrete for my countertops in the kitchen, in the bathroom, and for the fireplace surround. I thought it was an interesting material, and I decided I’d like to try making sculpture out of it.” Concrete has been the primary material of his sculpture for 13 years. 

The earliest pieces were geometric, and some embedded objects, such as an automobile wheel rim, in a rectangular or square “frame” of concrete. “They have developed into more organic configurations,” he said, with poured concrete being shaped and constrained by a variety of objects and materials, among them bikini bottoms, a garden hose, corsets, and the frame of a Ducati motorcycle.

“There’s something inherently insubordinate about concrete, it’s so heavy, and the way I choose to form it, I’m holding hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds of concrete together with flimsy cloth or other materials.”

“What results from this process of casting and forming these things are just haphazard and anomalous accidents. All this texture, there’s no planning for it, and there’s no planning for the shapes that come about. I can sort of anticipate, but then it takes over and does its own thing.”

Discussing the 2013 sculpture “Soft Serve Bikini Party,” he noted that the extrusions of concrete seem to be constrained by the bikini bottoms. In fact, the bikinis are not strong enough to hold the concrete, so he threads a strong Kevlar-like material in the piping of the fabric so that it can’t stretch at those points. He constructs a container around the concrete and, as it starts to set, he fills the negative space between the box and the sculpture with sand.

The concrete work has led him to appreciate the beauty in spontaneity and has in turn affected his paintings, one of which is a large canvas that is first polished so that it has the quality of glass. He then subjects black and white paint to pouring, splashing, squeegeeing, and spreading. The surface allows the paint to move fluidly across it and, like the concrete pieces, reflects his interest in the free play of materials.

For several years he has been producing abstract paintings that begin with a layer of poured and splashed paint that is overlaid by a layer of solid color that has a graphic quality and creates an illusion of deep space. “The color part shapes the composition in a way similar to how the hot pink bathing suit cuts through the nebulous gray cement,” he said.

He has turned to figuration in another series of recent paintings, with part of a naked body covered by realistic, tattoo-like images such as a butterfly, flowers, a barking dog, and a woman’s face. “I take these perfect paintings of a nude and deface them in a way, or put graffiti over them, or change them to make a different image of beauty. It’s like two paintings occupying the same canvas.”

Mr. Muhs’s resourcefulness extends to every area of his production. Asked how he moves the heavy concrete pieces around, he said he stresses the backs of his friends, “and I build customized hand trucks to move them myself. I enjoy the engineering challenge, which is born of necessity.”

Outside his house is a concrete rendition of St. Sebastian, who is traditionally portrayed in paintings tied to a stake and pierced with arrows. “Because he was a Roman soldier and always depicted as an athletic figure, I chose to form him by filling a football uniform from head to toe with concrete — the helmet, the shoulder pads, the football girdle — because that is our icon of the warrior.”

Looming over the driveway is an outlier of sorts, “Mariner’s Gate,” a massive white sculpture consisting of a classically styled boat hull supported by three 18-foot long cylindrical forms inspired by dock pilings. The piece was conceived when he was asked to present ideas for a public sculpture for several parks being developed on the East End.

“The assignment was to create something for our maritime community. After the project fell through, I decided to fund it myself, because I thought this sculpture should exist. Now I’m trying to find an actual public home for it.” He fabricated the piece himself from fiberglass and PVC, with an elaborate steel frame inside the cylinders that holds everything together.

Mr. Muhs earned a B.F.A. from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1988 and lived in the city for several years after graduating, working as a studio sculptor for advertising agencies. He eventually decided the East End could provide him with more space and an environment conducive to making his art.

His first studio here was in an industrial building in Southampton, and he moved to several larger studios before buying his house and expanding it. Thirteen years ago he married Beth McNeill, an independent curator who has worked directly with many artists and with such local organizations as Guild Hall, the Parrish Art Museum, and the Watermill Center. They have an 8-year-old son, West, and a daughter, India, who is 6.

The Southampton Arts Center will provide an opportunity to see Mr. Muhs’s work this winter in an exhibition titled “Take Over,” for which six or seven artists will take over the museum’s galleries.

The components of Jeff Muhs’s “Mariner’s Gate,” his first foray into large-scale public sculpture, are a classically styled boat hull and cylinders inspired by dock pilings.
In Mr. Muhs’s “The Gunslinger,” tattoo-like, detailed images are superimposed on the back of a naked female body.