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A Trophy for the Parrish's Shelf
The Southampton Press/ May 5th, 2005 Eric Ernst/ page B3

Michael Combs installation is intellectually coherent and memorable. Once considered by some in the East End artist community as a quaint and intellectually dried-up oasis of mostly traditionalist claptrap, the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton has transformed itself over the past 25 years into one of the leading regional exhibition spaces in the country.

Offering vibrant and conceptually engaging shows that appeal to both aesthetic sophisticates as well as casual art viewers, the exhibits have been constantly entertaining even when (on rare occasions) they may have fallen somewhat short of hitting their curatorial mark.

And, on those occasions when the exhibitions are truly memorable and successful, as is true in the current presentation of sculpture Michael Combs's site-specific installation, they have served as a reminder of how far the museum has grown as an institution, as well as what the village of Southampton will be missing should the Parrish be forced to relocate.

In the final analysis, if it comes down to a choice of commerce over creativity, the critics of the museum's expansion plans will apparently have an opportunity to illustrate the writer Thomas Wolfe's admonition that "you can lead a person to culture but you can't make them think."

Entitled, "The Trophy Room," the work by Mr. Combs is memorable on a number of different levels, not the least of which is its recognition that the importance in art lies not in the representation of objects alone, but, even more importantly, in the manner that the experience of perception engages the viewer.

While this has been unquestioningly one of the basic tenets of site-specific installation works since the earliest examples of the 1970s, it is indeed a rare occurrence when one finds this premise as intellectually coherent as Mr. Combs has been able to achieve here.

Lacking the autonomous presence of traditional painting and sculpture, the work draws its strength primarily from the viewer's intellectual involvement, even as the artist projects his own ideological and aesthetic dialogues.

Installed in the museum's Transept Gallery and surrounded by camouflage mosquito netting, the work is inspired by the all-male bastion of the gentlemen's club and Theodore Roosevelt's Long Island retreat at Sagamore Hill and consists of objects of taxidermy, furniture, and decoys associated with hunting as the embodiment of our national cult of masculinity.

Gaining its greatest impact by offering itself as both a tribute to - and condemnation of - hunting as a physical manifestation of our society's historical reverence for aggression, materialism, and macho posturing, the work is, by turns, whimsically entertaining and jarringly thought-provoking.

In some cases, it is able to accomplish both simultaneously, as is the case in objects mocking the homoerotic aspects of hunting, such as a stuffed deer's head encased in a zippered black leather mask or the duck's head codpiece hanging on the wall. Further, while there is a noticeable absence of any actual guns or firearms themselves as representations of phallic imagery, Mr. Combs introduces this kind of symbolism in more subtle ways, such as the woven baskets framing the fireplace mantle.

In other instances, Mr. Combs establishes a more overtly judgmental tone, as evidenced in the three objects he has arrayed on an antique desk. Consisting of a tiny stuffed deer known as a dik-dik, an artillery shell, and a small heart carved of linden wood that rests on a white-carved handkerchief, the tableau is one of the most eloquently ambiguous statements on hunting I believe I've ever seen.

Perhaps even more disturbingly memorable, however, is the children's rocker of a carved wooden goose. Impaled through the neck by a handle, pockmarked by holes as if blasted with a shotgun, and writhing in its apparent death throes, it no longer simply represents a child's toy and instead takes on an air of sardonic humor reminiscent of Duchamp and the Dadaists.

In a slightly different vein, in conjunction with "The Trophy Room," the Parrish is offering an exhibition entitled "People, Places, and Things" featuring works from the museum's permanent collection. Divided into three themes, "The Portrait," "A Sense of Place," and "Looking at the Everyday," the exhibit is certainly less intellectually intense than Mr. Combs's installation, and is, by extension, not nearly as affecting.

At the same time, it's quite worthwhile to see because it succinctly reflects the evolution of the museum's permanent collection and the sophistication of the Parrish's scope in its purchases and acquisitions over the years.

Both exhibitions at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton continue through May 15.

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