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Essay by Klaus Kertess

Michael Combs creates lures, traps, tricks that ensnare our eyes and ambivalently mock the masculine sexuality attached to the hunting and decoy carving that has occupied his family for generations. He is a master craftsman of woodcarving, porcelain casting, neoprene tailoring, et al. who readily entraps our expectant eyes. I live with one of these beautiful frauds - a white neoprene clad stag's head and gracefully arched neck mounted on the wall of my living room. The whiteness does not immediately surrender the stag's authenticity - it seems so lifelike even hanging high up on the double height wall. In its mouth is held a beaded something or other that is a sex toy meant for the anus. A disbelieving "ha ha" often greets this detail but can not deter the beauty of the soft curve of the stag's neck. The stag holds his own amongst other works of art, including a very beautiful and, for him restrained, painting by the late Stephen Mueller - a gift for my fiftieth birthday perhaps meant to have suggested that I should begin to lead my life with more restraint. It hangs radiant and unperturbed, a good distance down the wall from the stag's perch. I won't hold you up inventorying the other works of art displayed in this living room.

Stag heads have been, until recently, quite prominent in Combs' undertaking, often as a single work, occasionally become part of an installation such as "The Lodge" (2008) in which a dark red wood paneled room is furnished with the sofas, brightly colored wool blankets, and a plethora of stuffed trophies, most surrendered by stags and antelopes. The most imposing of the trophies is "Big Game" (2005) installed over the fireplace; it is carved out of linden wood sheathed in black neoprene imitating leather cladding with a zipper and seeming to turn the S & M proclivities of the White hunters inside out. The neoprene covers the individual horns of this triumphant male but leaves a stretch of pointed phallic erectness on each of the horns on the two branches of the stag's antlers. I can't resist adding "horniness" to this description and the possibility that this stag has won the masculinity prize that makes him the pride of any lodge.

Not all of Combs creature likenesses are from the deer family. Carved from linden wood are the distended necks of two swan-like creatures, one of them having worked its way into the neck of the other; and each neck sits atop a porcelain urinal from the 1880s. Just so he sees the "Ecstasy of Saint Teresa" (2006). The two intertwined necks are a tour de force of carving, stunning and beautiful. And he has carved superbly representations of clothing such as the carved wood, silk, embroidered patches, and oils that join together in the military jacket adorned with metals and embroidered patches simply titled "Apparel" (2005). One of the aforementioned patches is meticulously embroidered with the overlapping initials "C" and "M", in turn interlaced with a long fowl neck with a swan like head at either end. Might this suggest Combs' understanding of the macho ethos surrounding hunting or his being at least somewhat enmeshed in it as a result of his heritage? A less endangered subject also alludes to primarily masculine endeavor as does "Stick and Jab" (2011), put together out of pieces of wood creating the hanging contrivance for a gorgeous punching bag painstakingly embossed to simulate the look of the skin of a water creature like an alligator. Wherever you look in a Combs exhibition or installation you might well be ravished by the materiality of his sculptural trompe l'oeil.

Klaus Kertess 2011

Michael Combs  |  New York, NY  |
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