Sense of Sea
February 12, 2004
In one sense, Jeff Muhs has hardly moved at all. Apart from an eight-year stretch in Manhattan, where he studied at the School of Visual Arts and then launched his professional career, the painter has lived all of his 37 years in his native Southampton. Toward the eastern end of Long Island, where New York socialites party from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Muhs (pronounced MEEZ) has found all the elements he has needed for his luminous seascapes: sea, sun, solitude, light, clouds.
Just as Muhs’ art is rooted in the waters that surround Southampton ” Shinnecock Bay, Great Peconic Bay and the Atlantic Ocean ” so, too, do his seascapes connect him to his past. Growing up, Muhs was often taken to work by his father. The elder Muhs was a hunting and fishing guide, so work meant quiet, early mornings and late evenings on the water, watching the sun rise and set, at a distance from the crowds.
“I was surrounded by that, on the water at sunrise and sunset. And that’s where these paintings come from ” experiencing the light, the water, the atmospheric phenomenon,” he said.
Like the low-key Muhs himself, his paintings don’t suggest movement. Even in the seascapes that include dark storm clouds, and more so in the predominant brighter works, there is a calm and still quality. For Muhs, it’s about capturing those quiet moments that exist solely between himself and the sea that have always been a part of his life.
“It’s what my experience is ” being the only person out on the water when the sun’s rising, and it’s just me and the water and the sky,” said Muhs at the David Floria Gallery, where an exhibit of new oil paintings opens today, Friday, Feb. 13, with a reception from 6-8 p.m. “I’m relating my experience about that.”
In another sense, Muhs sees his artistic output as representing movement, forward progress. His paintings have moved from a point of specificity to a current place where the lines between representation and abstraction are blurred. It has been a steady move, says the artist, in the direction of simplicity and the essentials.
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“It’s always been a progression, from one place to another,” said Muhs. “This is just the latest step in that progression towards simplification, synthesizing what I find important about my subject matter. My progression is always going toward that ” finding what’s really important about the subject I paint, which is light and color.
“At times, they have been more representational, more specific to certain locations. But the progression has been to get them more universal and nonspecific and less representational.”
Towards that ideal, Muhs spends much of his time as he always has, watching the horizon where the sun touches the sea, and absorbing the resulting colors, shades and shapes. Typically, he then retreats to his studio and translates the experience onto canvas. “I don’t rely on a particular place. What they come down to is explorations of the color and light.”
In his current group of paintings, Muhs has pared things down to almost nothing more than color and light. Early in his career, he had worked as a mural painter, a magazine illustrator and even a sculptor ” and an award-winning sculptor at that. But he says he “didn’t care for any of that,” and returned to Southampton over a decade ago, to commune with the water. And begin the process of simplifying his vision.
“It’s more freeing. It’s more interesting. It’s more challenging,” he said of stripping down his paintings. “Because you’re eliminating a lot of the details, a lot of the elements that would make up a composition. You’re simplifying sometimes to one line and color, and it’s challenging to come up with interesting images with less compositional tools at your disposal.
“I just like the idea of limiting myself to that, and constantly coming up with variations on the seascape. I like working within the limitations as opposed to being forced to come up with more things.”
While Muhs strips his paintings down to the fewest elements possible, he also puts as much of himself as possible into the work. A painting can have as many as a dozen layers of paint. He often mixes his own paints from powdered pigment, the better to realize his desired vibrancy. And Muhs designs his own frames, and oversees their construction.
A final element that lends both depth and simplicity to the art is the titles of the paintings. Muhs is no student of Taoism. But at some point he saw connections between his work ” the peacefulness, the emphasis on nature ” and Taoism, and began using the language of the philosophy in his titles. Among the works in the current exhibit are “Temple of the Crane” and “Milk and Water Embrace.”
“My appreciation of and meditation on nature kind of paralleled Taoist philosophy,” he said. “Not that it was derived from it, but it paralleled certain things ” how I relate to a composition or canvas, different types of movement, suppleness, rootedness.”