In aesthetics, The Uncanny Valley is a hypothesized relationship between the degree of an object's resemblance to a human being and the emotional responce to such an object. For me , The Uncanny Valley was the moment when I first saw the results of my concrete sculpture as flesh. What had previously been an exploration of more architectural forms, by manner of my process, presented the material as flesh.
All images© 2021 Jeff Muhs
Concrete Poetry, in a Sculptural Form
An artist with deep local roots, Jeff Muhs has long made paintings that abstractly
reflect the environment of the East End of Long Island, but when it came to returning to sculpture after working on atmospheric canvases for many years, he chose a completely new path. Experimenting with concrete while renovating and expanding his Southampton home and studio, he was struck by the infinite possibilities of casting the construction material to create sculptural forms.
After some initial pieces that poetically froze found objects in rectangular cement forms, Muhs had a eureka moment when he poured concrete into plastic bags, supported by a wood frame, in the negative realms of a plastic child’s chair. Seeing his sculpture as a flesh-like, figurative form bulging out of the small chair’s stylish frame, the artist was moved by the human-like nature of the piece and it was at that moment that his journey into what he would later term “The Uncanny Valley” began.
Muhs is not the only artist who has employed concrete as the primary material in his sculptural work, but the way in which he uses it is unique to the medium and contributes something completely new to contemporary art. In the early-1980s Isa Genzken placed metal antennas in blocks of cast concrete to imaginatively simulate shortwave radios, which could fictitiously receive communication signals, while more recently Tony Matelli whimsically repurposed classic concrete sculptures by attaching realistically painted, bronze-cast fruits and vegetables onto their decaying forms to give them new life.
The sublime concrete sculptures that Muhs has been making since 2011, when he created Decommissioned Chair, are conceptually related to Genzken’s cast forms and Matelli’s use of found objects, but different in the way that they construct sensual figures with iconic objects and abstract forms. Dubbing his invented process Dynamic Free Casting, Muhs pushes the limits of the concrete and his ability to control it to the absolute maximum. Utilizing cords, corsets, bikinis, motorcycles parts, saddles and shoes as objects of constraint, he molds volumes of wet concrete into shapely, seductive sculptural figures.
Muhs designs and engineers the set-up for the sculpture and then lets it do the job, and ultimately define the work. He mined art history—a point of departure for many of his paintings and sculptures—for his own expressionistic version of St Sebastian in 2012. Instead of casting the celebrated Christian saint as a Roman soldier, he used football equipment—including a helmet, shoulder pads and a protective cup—to help shape a modern-day martyr who’s similarly shot full of arrows and tied to the stake.
For his interpretation of the ancient Greek goddess Venus, he used photographs of the archetypal Venus de Milo, which has been prominently displayed at the Louvre Museum in Paris since shortly after the armless statue was rediscovered in 1820, to help him engineer his 2012 Concrete Venus. And, in the same year, he voluptuously referenced a famous Horst photograph of a corseted woman seen from behind in his concrete sculpture, which was sensually shaped by a black, tightly laced corset that still binds it, and turned a singular, black Manolo Blahnik high-heel sandal into Decommissioned Shoe by letting hardening concrete run right through it.
The following year, Muhs reinforced a series of hot pink bikini bottoms to erotically simulate a stack of soft serve ice cream in shapely concrete for his Soft Serve Bikini Party piece and employed a variety of restraining devices to create his headless and armless Concrete Torso, which has a surprisingly realistic derriere. Simultaneous making his large-scale action paintings, with their lively layers of mopped, dripped and poured on paint, Muhs let the two mediums inform one another while keeping their physical appearances and aesthetic approaches quite separate.
Stimulated by the response that his sculpture was garnering—the massive sculpture, Going Nowhere Fast, from 2016, was the first thing visitors saw when approaching Art Southampton in the summer of 2016 and his 2017 piece, How to Rope a Snake, was featured in Guild Hall’s Artists Members Exhibition that year and in an article about the show in Hamptons Art Hub—Muhs dove deeper into his Dynamic Free Casting technique. Both works marked turning points in the artist’s innovative process, in that Going Nowhere Fast incorporated bright red fairings from a chic Ducati 999 superbike embracing the figurative concrete forms and How to Rope a Snake employed thick red rope to define bulging sections of a flesh-like, elongated body of beautifully poured concrete.
The rope piece led to the artist being introduced to Shibari, the Japanese art of rope bondage, by someone who had seen the sculpture. Researching the ancient artistic practice, Muhs used the procedure to create a system of tied ropes on a mannequin that hit every anatomical point of the human body and then used the rope structure to create one of his most highly engineered sculptures, Callipyge. Taking its title from the ancient Roman statue Venus Callipyge, which means "Venus of the beautiful buttocks," and from the artist’s 2013 painting of a reclining female odalisque paired with a slice of abstraction, the work highlighted Muhs’ interest in art historical sources, whether originating in the East or the West.
Winning “Top Honors” for Callipyge in the 2018 Artists Members Exhibition at Guild Hall spurred the artist onward as he prepared for his solo show at the museum, which was delayed for more than a year by the Covid-19 pandemic. The delay in the scheduling allowed Muhs more time to create two new, dynamic pieces for the show, Marie Antoinette and October Horse, both dated 2021.
His compelling concrete bust of Marie Antoinette illustrates the highest degree of control of the material that he has been able to achieve in making these sculptures in one pour. He used bread bags, women’s undergarments, t-shirts, sheets and a neck corset to get the desired attitude and posture and shapes of the hair and dress related to historical renderings of the last queen of France, who was unceremoniously beheaded during the French Revolution.
Contrastingly, October Horse is a tour de force in minimalist artistic restraint and maximalist sculptural compression. Inspired by Helmut Newton’s kinky 1976 photograph of a woman in riding pants, boots and a black bra while wearing a horse saddle and seductively posing on a bed, the playful piece consist of an elegant Hermes saddle strapped around a pillow-like form, whose two sides become wings or thighs, depending on your point of view. Titled for the month it will make its debut, October Horse grew out of Muhs winning the chance to show this body of work for the first time. As a new artwork entering the endless race to gain a place in art history it’s a sign of more good things to come from an artist who never stops probing the possibilities of his practice.