Michael Combs Shoots to Kill at Salomon Contemporary
The East Hampton Star, Jess Frost/ August 26, 2008
Is a decoy art (or is art a decoy)? The artist Michael Combs explores decoys' potential for irony and hidden meanings with "The Lodge", a surreal installation evoking a hunting camp at Salomon Contemporary.
Hunting jas brought fame to Mr.Combs's North Fork family. For as many as 18 generations, the Combses have lived off the Great South Bay of Long Island as subsistence hunters, trappers, and fisherman. These last five generations, they have established themselves as notable artisan decoy carvers.
Last year, James Salomon offered Mr. Combs the unique opportunity to create an installation within the white walls of his garage like gallery on Plank Road, off the Sag Harbor Turnpike in East Hampton. The artist transformed the industrial space into a somewhat bizarre vision of a hunter's lodge and camp, a setting he is more than familiar with.
Sculpting a decoy requires not only great skill, but a deep knowledge of avian anatomy. A decoy's function is very much dependent on the quality of its form. (Can you imagine a less forgiving audience than a suspicious merganser?) Mr. Combs began carving at the age of 10, and his ability to capture the fluidity of a swan's neck, or the weightless feathers of a small shorebird, is flawless. It was this carving skill that got him into the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he received both bachelor's and master's degrees and now teaches sculpture.
When looking at his work, it is easy to conclude that he is compulsive about his craft and materials. "Earlier on, when I had hunters around," he said in a recent interview, "I would make a latex cast of the actual birds, dead birds, bills, and things." These days he has expanded his inventory of materials to include zippers, vinyl, porcelain, and leather, in addition to the traditional wood that is the starting point of the majority of his taxidermy-like pieces. It is this combination of materials, as well as his loyalty to craft, that brings a particular authenticity to what Mr. Combs does.
He certainly appears proud of his family legacy of fishing and hunting for food - but at the same time repelled by the folly of hunting for sport's sake. This conflict plays an integral role in his artwork.
"As a child I was a real natureboy," he said, "but I found myself continuing to play this role as a hunter. There was something so warped and perverse about it. A lot of the arabesque quality of the artwork, of these dangling necks, this is exactly what I dealt with."
"People would bring me th birds and I would gut them," he recalled. "They hunted, but they didn't want to deal with the responsibility, so I would field-dress the birds."
His reaction to the refusal to look one's own deeds in the eye reverberates through Mr. Combs's work. A certain irony is apparent in the elongated and often pierced necks of birds, or the sadomasochistic appearance of a deer head covered in neoprene and bisected by a zipper: It's as if the deer had a fetish for being preyed upon and was playing right along, as if he got caught and liked it.
Michael Combs's sculptures have been exhibited in various prestigious galleries in New York City and beyond, but his 2005 solo show at The Parrish Art Museum in Southampton is where his first full-scale installation appeared. Titled "The Trophy Room", that installation consisted of an aristocratic hunter's den decked in manliness from the floor to walls. The room brimmed with taxidermy from the Combs family collection, among which the artist placed his own distorted versions, maximizing the potential for a dialogue about trophies.
"The Lodge" was conceived last fall, when Mr. Salomon (who is also the associate director of the Mary Boone Gallery in Manhattan) offered Mr. Combs his August-September slot. In the interim, the dealer gave the artist another unusual opportunity: to exhibit work in the Middle East. "Michael and I traveled to Dubai together in March, where he transformed my booth at Art Dubai into a luxuriously surreal office space that was called 'State of Nature'," Mr.Salomon wrote in an email. "The concept was more of a collaborative betwen us, while 'The Lodge' is very much his own. Art Dubai was a bit of a warm up and a testing ground for us, which had a great response. Just as important, we got the feel of working together, and spending time discussing the next step...which is happening now."
Upon entering Mr. Salomon's gallery, visitors will find a freestanding structure that is based on an actual "hunting house" on the Great South Bay. This structure is the centerpiece of the installation, but its companion piece, "The Wish", quickly summarizes the tone of the show. "The Wish" is a 10-foot ornamental aluminum cage containing a life-size albino buck.
Many myths and legends inform Mr.Combs's work, and the albino buck is one of them. According to him, the tale of an "immensely elusive" white buck roaming the North Fork has consumed hunters every deer season since he was in high school. The albino deer in "The Wish" has skin made from a soft vinyl, stretched and pinned; it dangles inside the pretty white cage. When viewed from inside "The Lodge", where - among other fauna - a black elk mount bays overhead, "The Wish" looms eerily in a manmade forest.
The final piece in the trilogy of works is titled "Ages 3 and Up". A children's ride in the form of a swan, it is carved from cedar and mounted on motorcycle springs. The swan is impaled through the neck with a decoratively carved handle and blasted with birdshot. In its earliest form the piece was a part of a shooting gallery where viewers could fire a loaded gun at the artwork. The piece evokes empathy - but for whom? The bird? The child? The art lovers lured into pulling the trigger?
As heavy-handed (and humorous) as some of this work may sound, Mr. Combs's hearfelt conflict is palpable in each piece. Reflecting on all the labor that must have gone into the execution of each piece, you can't help but imagine a young Michael Combs tenderly and closely observing his subject, in order to exactly replicate it...in order to lure it to its death.
For Mr. Combs, the decoy speaks of desire, manipulation, and deception. A decoy is a lure, and one that Michael Combs will continue to use to draw you in.