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Michael Combs
Be All You Can't Be, Salomon Contemporary
Sculpture Magazine
May 2012

"Be All You Can't Be," Michael Combs's first solo exhibition in New York, featured a white elephant in the middle of the room. Standing atop a delicate, hand-carved pillow, the creature (cast from a rubber toy, then enhanced to resemble a charging bull), is small in size but symbolically huge, Minds That Matter (2011) represents the psychological behemoths that lurk beneath Combs's constantly evolving theme of macho male sexuality. It also serves as a platform for this rising star's beginnings as a direct carver in wood and a launch pad for where he's headed as a conceptual multimedia artist.

Combs descends from generations of baymen and decoy carvers who from 1640 to 1960 made their livings from the bounty of Long Island's Great South Bay. By the time that Combs came of age in the '80s, much had changed. He recalls the wounded duck in his book bag that "just wouldn't die" and the subsequent guilt that sat in his gut for his role in plunder for prize. As the Day is Long (2011), a bubblegum pink shotgun affixed to a grainy 1911 photograph of market gunners, acknowledges the adolescent epiphany that branded the taking of trophies as a perverse measure of a young man's sexuality.

In 2005, that realization sired his outrageously subversive portrayals of hunting as a sexually driven impulse - massive stag heads zipped in S&M leather. Now, a new generation of bucks looms as a broader symbol of American competitiveness. Sporting sleek sexy stripes mimicking those on racing cars, they are clad in hides that suggest winners and losers: Head of State (2011) is marshmallow soft and vulnerable; Big Baller (2011) wears his intricately cowboy boot-tooled skin tight and tough.

But far more interesting are new constructions that use faux and authentic materials to convey the divide between masculine temerity and timidity. Stick and Jab (2011), a quirky rendition of a punching bag, layers brutal manly aggression against gentler associations with nature - the bag, covered in fake elephant skin and real crocodile, hangs from a birchwood support reminiscent of the welcoming rustic furniture that sat on the Combs' homey country porch. And a Dallas Cowboys helmet, reconstructed in How the West Was Won (2011), is a not-so-hard-hat-of-champions, made from birch branches and antlers. Undermining its symbolic star logo, this fragile headpiece exposes the wearer, leaving him as unprotected as a muscled horned stag facing an advancing posse of hunters.

Man Up (2011), the star of the show, says almost everything there is to say about the primordial urge to create symbols for sexual rites of passage. It borrows from body mask torsos of pregnant women carved and worn by adolescent boys of the Makonde tribe in Tanzania as part of their fertility rite of passage. But the individual pieces in this exhibition spoke louder than the whole, which was conceived as a combined retrospective and teaser suggesting that something new and grand is going to happen. The elephant in the room may be a clue. Remember, it's a charging bull.

Joyce Beckenstein

Michael Combs  |  New York, NY  | All Rights Reserved.