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Bringing New Vision to Island Heritage The Southampton Press
Arts and Living/ Tom Isler/ Page Bl
One artist's fresh look at water fowling


Of the 44 artists represented in both halves of the survey exhibition, "North Fork/ South Fork: East End Art Now," which closes at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton on Sunday, the sculpture Michael Combs best embodies the show's title. His life and art are indistinguishable, both inextricably entwined with the Long Island shore.

Born in Huntington in 1970, Mr. Combs is the show's only Long Island native. He's a fifth generation decoy carver, though few of his birds have ever been used for actual decoys. There is documentation confirming that members of his family first settled on Long Island in about 1644, "and we've hunted even since," he said. That is, until 14 years ago, when Mr. Combs last picked up a gun and trained it on wildlife.

Mr. Combs said hunting is "almost in my blood." It had been a way of life for his family, generation after generation of boat builders, fishermen and market gunners. They worked their way through the Great Depression by selling game in New York City. At first, Mr. Combs, an Eagle scout, settled into the family's newfound metier of decoy carving - which emerged as decorative art and collecting subculture only in the past 40 years, he estimated - skills he learned from his father and grandfather. At 13 and 14, Mr: Combs recalled, he would enter carving competitions around the country and sometimes he took home best in show honors.

"But I started to ask, what am I getting from this?" Mr. Combs said. "For me, it was the first nail in the coffin."

He grew up surrounded by dead wildfowl, and soon started to be "repelled by the reality of killing," he said. What Mr. Combs found most repulsive was that a pursuit that had been historically a utilitarian form of survival for his family had become, in contemporary times, a means of "country club" posturing, a perverse measure of machismo and self-worth. For the first time in countless generations, a member of the Combs family decided to give up hunting, and broke from tradition by turning away from Great South Bay to make a living.

In his art, Mr. Combs explores some of the tensions and conflicts between man and nature, creating what he calls "a narrative on environment."

"it's not just directed at the issue of hunting," Mr. Combs said, noting the work also revolves around issues of sexuality and reproduction. But, he admitted, "I cannot escape nature... I come from 14 generations of baymen. I had no choice in the matter."

Mr. Combs isn't quite prepared to be a spokesman for the World Wildlife Federation or to lobby against the Nation Rifle Association, but his lyrical sculpture takes a long, and often disturbing, look at death caused by sport, and mocks the distorted sense of manhood some hunters feel after bagging a bird.

Mr. Combs, who earned his MFA just five years ago from the School of Visual Arts in New York, freed himself from the demands of purely realistic carving to accommodate his desire for more personal expression, allowing for a more satisfied product than mere mimicry of nature. Working mostly in painted linden wood and white cedar, Mr. Combs's sculpture includes pieces such as a decapitated cormorant head on a pink pillow, a long swan's neck draped over a peg like a length of rope, with a head on both ends, and "Trophy," a felled and partially plucked mallard duck laying sacrificially on a white cloth laid over a tree stump.

"The object isn't to disturb people," Mr. Combs said. "My job," he added, "is to make work that is personally moving."

In the "North Fork/ South Fork" show, Mr. Combs has provided "Apparel," a hunting jacket, hand carved in linden wood, sporting the patches, medals and ribbons of a coat belonging to a decorated general. The patches, upon closer examination, are satirical in tone. One reads, "Peconic Battalion"; another, "Veni, Vidi, Venati," which Mr. Combs translates as "I came, I saw, I hunted." A third, referencing a MIA/POW patch, laments "The One That Got Away." -

Featured on the back of the jacket is a graphic representation of Zeus, in the figure of a swan, seducing Leda, wife of Tyndareus, the Spartan king, embellishing upon the Greek myth.

Though Mr. Combs's craftsmanship honors the tradition passed down through his family, the content is less reverential. The jacket, modeled after one Mr. Combs's great-grandfather wore, could be a uniform for an "ultimate boys club," he chided.

In addition to being the artist with the strongest ties to Long Island, Mr. Combs is also, at this moment, one of the least exhibited artists in the Pamsh exhibition. He has shown his work in group shows at various galleries, including James Cohan in New York, but only now is working on his first solo exhibition.

Being included in the Parrish's survey, alongside the likes of sculptures John Chamberlain and Arden Scott, has been a great honor, Mr. Combs said, particularly at this nascent stage of his career.

"The people in the show, I've respected and been intrigued but their work since I was a young man," Mr. Combs said.

With a young son of his own now and a bright career ahead of him, Mr. Combs said, "I'm right where I'm supposed to be."

Part I.
Alice Aycock, Lynda Benglis, Vija Celmins, Jessica Craig-Martin, Robert Dash, Rafael Ferrer, Barnaby Furnas, Jane Freilicher, April Gorni, Robert Gober, Michael Halsband, Ibram Lassaw, Malcolm Morley, Tony Oursler, Elizabeth Peyton, Matthew Satz, Arden Scott, Keith Sonnier, Michelle Stuart, T.J. Wilcox

Part II.
Ross Bleckner, Barbara Bloom, Tricia Brown, John Chamberlain, Michael Combs, Chuck Close, Eric Fischl, Robert Harms, Mary Heilmann, Bill Komoski, Tony Just, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Barbara Kruger, Donald Lipski, Donald Moffett, Jorge Pardo, David Salle, Cindy Sherman, Billy Sullivan, Sue Williams, Jane Wilson, Joe Zucker.


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