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Real Men Don't Carve Handkerchiefs
BY AMEI WALLACH
Sculpture Magazine Centenial Edition Jan/Feb issue 2006
Michael Combs knows the trajectory of an osprey plummeting to its prey. He knows the silhouette of a heron, haloed in the steamy mist of a rising summer sun. He can tell his life in the cycles of sea lavender or the cacophony of arctic terns warning him away from their young. He spent his boyhood where his father did, and his grandfather, and his grandfather's father before that, back and back to 1644: in the palette of greens and declensions of purples and blues that color the marshes and bays of Long Island. Baymen and hunters like the men of Combs's family spend a lot of time watching. They get to know the fish they fish and the birds they stalk, they study habits and reconnoiter habitats. Long periods of waiting climax in the eroticism of violence. Like Hemingway's old man they love the fish when they are alive, and they love them when they kill them. In between there are stories to tell, fish stories, war stories. In their down time for the last five generations, Combs men have been decoy carvers, translating observation into tools of the trade. Decoys are a kind of bait. They ride the waters to entice real ducks within gunshot range. Somewhere along the way, decoy carving became a folk art, and, like all arts, it has collected collectors. They prize the work of Captain George Combs (1848-1930), Captain Alvin "Jack" Combs (1883-1959), Captain George W. Combs (1911-93), and Captain Jack Combs Sr. (born 1935) and could care less about what a decoy is actually meant to do.
But Michael Combs cares. At 35, he is a virtuoso carver who can do feathers, talons, and the crook of a neck with extraordinary grace and verisimilitude, it's in his genes. He is also, however, a sculptor and installation artist conversant with the idioms of iconoclasm, Modernism, and its aftermath. In Combs's hands, a decoy is not just a decoy. It is the burden of heritage and the liberation of metaphor. It is lure, tie, and object of desire. As an emblem of virility, it is capable of embodying a litany of manmade ills visited on the environment. His riffs on ancestral traditions expose the correlation between loving and killing, beauty and betrayal, nature and its devastation through the culture of prowess and plunder.
At the core of his strategy is his virtuosity itself - "showing your chops," he calls it. In the ongoing argument over craft, art, and folk art, virtuosity is suspect. Despite the fact that the lines continue to blur, folk art is generally held to be the art of passing down a world view and traditions within a group. Craft is defined as a concern with function and material over ideas, and fine art as the art of ideas over tradition or craft. In recent years, folk and craft arts have come out of the cold, and in the spring of 2005, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith pronounced the battle virtually won for all such artists. In a review of the exhibition "Bill Traylor, William Edmondson and the Modernist Impulse," at the Studio Museum in Harlem, she wrote: "The dichotomies of insider and outsider, modern and naive, are losing their pertinence."
Combs knows all too well that this is not so for a young artist with something to add to the contemporary discourse. In an art climate long favorable to sampling and readymades, virtuosity continues as a liabitity. So Combs uses that fact. He exploits the tension between craftsmanship and conceptualism in a dynamic collision between act and idea. In the process, his art has become a critique of masculinity as nuanced and incensed as the feminist inquiry engaged in by such artists as Louise Bourgeois, Roni Horn, and Kiki Smith.
I first became aware of Combs in 1998, two years after he completed his MFA at the School of Visual Arts. He was 28, and he and some friends had borrowed a potato barn on the North Fork of Long Island in order to mount a group show titled "Starch," an ironic nod to the potatoes. During the previous two winters, Long Island farmers had poisoned flocks of geese that settled on their fields and ruined their crops. Combs, who had done his share of hunting, bird by bird, responded with revulsion to the wholesale slaughter. He found his first mature subject in his rage.
He carved swans, their heads and necks elongated and dangling, with absurdly phallic implications. Swans, known for their grace and bad temperaments, are apt targets for the contradictory responses that birds invoke in hunters, farmers, and lovers of kitschy collectibles. In Combs's hands, their parts twisted and curved. Heads and necks were severed from bodies or hung from an old skiff turned upside down on the ceiling the way he was upending received attitudes. The swans intimated violence, the beauty of fluidity, and the terror of castration that can lurk at the heart of manly pursuits. Combs showed the skiff again at Exit Art later that year. In 2000, he was included in the James Cohan Gallery's "Extraordinary" exhibition, together with 46, Tom Friedman, Robert Gober, and Jeff Koons. There, he exhibited Trophy, a carved eviscerated mallard, spread like a sacrificial offering on a white napkin on a phallic tree trunk. Soon after that, in Heart on Napkin (2000), he carved the napkin itself and placed on it an exquisitely rendered cormorant's heart. As his carved objects became increasingly more explicit and intricate, it was clear where his own heart lay: in empathy with the murdered birds.
Then, in the spring of 2005, he took an artistic leap, with an installation that made manifest his shifted point of view, from bird to man. "The Trophy Room," at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, New York, was life as seen from the other side of the shotgun. It probed the minds of the rough riders, within Combs's own family and without, who kill in the service of the dark, inchoate compulsions of manliness. "The Trophy Room" was at once a survey Combs family decoys, a retrospective of Michael Combs's sculpture and new works, and an installation of found objects. It played visual tricks with notions of "seem" and "be" and cannily navigated the borders of reality, magic, and horror.
Theodore Roosevelt, the very incarnation of American masculinity, had a trophy room at Sagamore Hill, which Combs knows well. Roosevelt's room, the stuffed heads of moose, buffalo, and other game have shared wall space with Roosevelt's Nobel Prize for Peace, a fragment of the airplane in which his son died in World War I, and his own death mask, conflating the romance of death with the realities of war. Combs himself grew up in an impeccably appointed Victorian bed and breakfast that his parents ran, complete with its own trophy room, though his father had bought, not killed, the game on the walls.
In "The Trophy Room," Combs got the overstuffed, layered look right, once you skirted the hunter's duck blind draped in camouflage netting that shrouded the structure. You entered through wood-famed arches. Combs's For You and I (2000), a double-headed swan's neck, stretched over the lintel. His undulating Elephant Tusk carvings (2005), studded like dildos, flanked the opening. The walls of the room were papered with blood-red wallpaper of Combs's design, whose pattern, once you looked more closely, consisted of stylized cocks and balls. There was a real leather Chesterfield sofa in front of the fireplace, a 19th-century fur-covered chair constructed of horns, an elephant foot footstool, shot shell boxes, a set of ceramic game plates from England, and the stuffed heads of such fauna as a throne, several gazettes, and an impala. Amid all of this, Combs had dispersed on tables, mantelpieces, and shelves, a great blue heron carved by his father, Captain Jack Combs, in the 1990s, a hat rack studded with broad-bill bronze feet that had been assembled by his grandfather, Captain George Washington Combs, in the 1930s and his grandfather's 1930s carving of a flying Pintail Drake, its wonderfully wrought wings elegantly spread.
In this context, his own subversive carvings looked right at home. Untitled Go-Go Boot (2004-05) is a Surrealist tour-de-force of stacked basswood sole and heels and tightened, creased, and zippered black rubber out of which branches sprout, including, painfully, through the toes. On one of the branches, a carved bird perches, nature for once trumping what passes for culture. Big Game (2005), a basswood-antlered head over the fireplace, is encased in zippered black rubber, out of some S&M fantasy. The gracious arabesques of linden wood swans' necks rise out of ceramic hos-pital urinals in his 2005 series "American Dream." The brassy libidinous poetry of his objects served as a critical subtext to the room's testosterone-soaked celebration of the manly arts of war.
There is no question that Combs in this room, as in most of his work, was engaged in an assault on his own heritage. He implicates himself in this castigation as much as the audience titillated by the visually ravishing experience. Like the German artist Anselm Kiefer, whose early work continually rehearsed the relationship between Germans and Jews, Combs obsessively investigates the consequences of a way of life based on the masculine values of aggression, death, and greed so deeply embedded in the national psyche.
He traces his first discomfort with the discrepancies between appearance and reality to his relationship with his grandfather, a hard, "lumberjack sized man, as rugged and raw as you can get, and yet he had the ability to carve these amazing shore birds and these flying pintails that I believe are the finest folk art l have ever seen in my life." It was from the deck of his grandfather's bay house, a minimal masculine paradise that still rises on stilts out of the grasses in the midst of the Great South Bay, where Michael Combs watched osprey dismember fish in the predawn lavender light and where he diced up horseshoe crabs to use as bait to catch the mummy-chog that were the real fishing bait. By the time he was 12 or 13, he was carving birds to impress his grandfather, who was too brusque to respond, although the boy was already beginning to win first place in wildlife carving competitions. From his grandfather he was also learning that fishing often meant poaching at night, with nets instead of rods, in defiance of the law and fair practice.
On a brutally cold winter's day at about this time, the boy and a friend shot a merganser in order to bring it home in glory as a trophy. "It was a rite of passage," Combs recalls. He knew that the way to kill a crippled duck was to give its neck a clockwise turn and snap it. But this duck would not die. It would seem to, and he would put it in his book bag and start down the road, and then it would stir and he would have to put down the book bag and twist its neck again, over and over all two miles home. Instead of showing his father what a "mighty hunter" he was, he had to ask him how to kill a duck. It was a sign of not belonging, and the beginning of the freedom to wonder about it.
Also, hunters who were in it for the thrill and the body count would deposit scores of dead ducks on his parents' porch, and it would be his task, as the youngest, to thaw, pluck, and disembowel them. He distanced himself in resentment as he learned the anatomy of the birds inside out, giving a vitality to his carvings that transcended the conventions of the form. By the time he submitted a portfolio of drawings and decoys to the School of Visual Arts for admission, he was in internal exile from his world. His father, a retired tugboat captain, was remarkably supportive. "You have about as much chance of surviving as an artist as you do as a baymen," he said of that dying occupation.
At SVA, Combs wanted to become an illustrator. He was the only one in his family who could draw. He didn't want to carve the way they did, though he took commissions to pay his way through school. For his first three years in New York, he hardly set foot in a contemporary art gallery, although he admired the Sargents at the Metropolitan Museum and the curve of a stone sandal on a Greek sculpture. Then he entered the masters program and came under the tutelage of Thomas Woodruff, chairman of SVA's illustration and cartooning department, who regularly exhibited his symbolist responses to the realities of being a gay man in the age of AIDS in New York galleries. He urged Combs not to reject his gift for sculpture and instructed him to sample the gallery scene. One of the first exhibitions the young artist stumbled into featured Tim Hawkinson's exuberant exploitations of process, comedy, and materials.
"I was high, literally. It unlocked something I didn't know was locked," Combs recalled. For his next studio class, in a Contrast, he carved a pillow out of high density foam and pierced it with a steel stake that stuck to the wall. Soon afterwards he became framemaker and studio assistant to Frank Moore, who lost his 17-year battle with AIDS in 2002. With what Tim Griffin in Art in America described as "a realist's brush but a surrealist's heart," Moore braided lyricism and danger into his meditations on environmental pollution and its relationship to AIDS, sex, and death. He offered Combs a different take on masculinity, and more to the point, he had an anything-goes attitude toward content and materials that the young artist incorporated into the frames he constructed. Combs took away from the experience not only the sheer joy of experimentation, but also methodologies for deconstruction and conceptualization. Moore died the year of the Iraqi invasion and the birth of Combs's son, Sailor.
Combs, who shares child-rearing duties with Sailor's mother, did not produce a great deal for the next two years. He returned with a monumental sculpture that broadened the scope of his critique of masculinity run amuck to include the war in Iraq. Apparel (2004) consists of an oversized carved linden wood hunting jacket more military than sportsman-like. !n its scale and decapitated presence it evokes the felt jackets of Joseph Beuys, Chris Burden's LAPD Uniform (1993), and Combs's own feeling of "entrapment" as a boy in the shadow of his flannel-shirted grandfather. Combs carved the buttons on the coat and the thread stitched through the buttons. He carved the quilted shoulders and the ammunition belt, though he armed it with found shells. He designed military decorations and embroidered patches, including one that suggests Nazi armbands with a plover decoy target as a black band. The embroidered patch on the back is his tour-de-force, recasting the swan as the ultimate murderous decoy in a Comix re-envisioning of the mythic Leda and the Swan rape. Underneath is his family slogan: "I came I saw I hunted"
The jacket led straight to "The Trophy Room". Now Combs wants to further conflate fantasy with reality; to enlarge upon the kinky kick of survivor's guilt that the room stimulates. He wants to carve the Chesterfield sofa as something monstrous and delicious, growing horns. He wants to carve an indentation in the sofa as if someone as large as he is had just been sitting there. He'll juxtapose the bulky with the delicate in the form of a carved tissue box and carved tissues scattered on the floor in a suggestive, unappetizing narrative. In front of the couch he'll set a wide-screen television, framed in an Adirondack frame of his own making. And on the screen will be a video shot, with menace and beauty, of the waters surrounding his grandfather's bay house. It is the place where he first intimated the relationship between art and the toxic undercurrents of unexamined values.
Amei Wallach's next book, When Art Worked (Rizzoli, 2007), will be a visual, aesthetic, and social documentary of the WPA.
Michael Combs | New York, NY | firstname.lastname@example.org
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