Growing up on Long Island’s East End, Michael Combs was raised by generations of hunters, fishermen, boat builders, and decoy makers. Instead of becoming an avid hunter himself, however, the artist responded to this upbringing by developing a passion for preserving nature and exposing the vanity of gaming sports.
Wild Card charts Michael Combs’s multi-media, fifteen-year exploration of gender identity and cultural mythology, as experienced and expressed in both personal rites of passage and within the history of group behavior—in the real and imagined games we play. Combs’s carefully crafted works examine man’s competitive nature and the attendant need to seek validation through sex, discrimination, societal trophies, power, and control. The artist’s sustained, poetic use of historic “tools of the trade” is evident in his works: having spent his childhood gutting and dissecting game for hunters, Combs truly knows the anatomy of his animal muses. The verisimilitude of his carved creatures recalls the 19th-century American trompe l’oeil tradition; and the inclusion of everyday objects and clothing grounds Combs’s investigations in the present while revealing a complex legacy of meaning. The racing stripes on Combs’s trophy mounts, for example, are not merely a contemporary fashionable embellishment: the origin of the racing stripe was to provide the driver with a swift reference to calibrate passing distance, allowing him to be the victor, to win the race. Both a skilled craftsman and a witty conceptualist, Combs dissects this urge to win, and calculates its costs. Like artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, and Matthew Barney, Combs mines his personal, cultural, and aesthetic inheritance to expose a provocative spectrum of human instinct and behavior.
Employing hand-carved linden wood along with found materials, such as Lincoln Logs, crocodile skin, animal antlers, shotgun shells, foul weather gear, rubber cladding, antique bedpans, and other appropriated elements, Combs’s art references a broad spectrum of American history and popular culture—from guns to game to the Dallas Cowboys—alluding to masculine icons such as Ernest Hemingway and Theodore Roosevelt. His football helmets, punching bags, and sports equipment examine another common boyhood obsession, and reference the mythology of the American West within the context of sports rivalry. Combs’s equipment-art both illuminates and subverts the construction of gender identity, while as the artist says, creating a reminder that “sometimes it’s best to be all that you can’t be.” The victor, here, is vulnerability.
About the artist
A native of Long Island, New York, Michael Combs lives and works in New York City. Combs earned an MFA from the School of Visual Arts. His work has been exhibited at galleries and museums throughout the United States. In 2005, the Parrish Art Museum featured a site-specific project, The Trophy Room, for which the artist transformed the gallery space into an immersive display of sculpted hunting conquests. In 2007 and 2008, Combs collaborated with Salomon Contemporary Gallery of New York to present State of Nature at Art Dubai, and The Lodge in East Hampton. This fall, Combs’s work has been selected to represent the School of Visual Arts in their 65th Anniversary show in New York. In 2014, the North Carolina Museum of Art will present a two-person exhibition featuring the works of Michael Combs and of New York painter Alexis Rockman.