A new 15-year survey of artist Michael Combs’ work is open at 21C Museum. Combs draws on his Long Island family’s long history as expert outdoorsmen and decoy carvers in his playful mixed-media explorations of gender identity, rites of passage and cultural myths. This is the first retrospective for Combs, who has shown his work throughout the United States and abroad.
“I really like to play around and prod with what makes man tick, some of the ludicrous lengths we go for validation,” says Combs. “When you scratch the surface, I’m using a lot of elements that do involve hunting, which is derived from my family’s whole history.”
The centerpiece of the exhibit is a sculpture called “The Wish.” It’s a life-sized white buck (hand-tailored vinyl covering a carved foam form, sporting hand-carved cedar legs) suspended by its neck inside an eleven-feet-tall aluminum bird cage. In Combs’ Long Island hometown, an albino deer has long flummoxed local hunters, who each want to be the one who brings the buck down — one town’s landlocked Moby-Dick.
“They never seem to outwit this creature. It’s white, so it only comes out in the snow, it only comes out in deep fog,” says Combs. “This animal knows how to survive.”
“When ideas haunt me, when they stay with me and don’t leave, that’s when I have to do them,” he adds.
Inside the adjacent gallery space Combs calls “the locker room,” a photo of a man and a woman, “Adam and Eve,” face off in football helmets with grills carved from deer antlers.
“Carving deer antler is very strange. I don’t know how to describe it,” says Combs. “It feels a little too au naturel. It has a smell to it like you’re carving bone.”
Those elements occur throughout the exhibit, along with a playful approach to sports and competition. A trophy head sculpture on the wall, a steer dubbed “Big Baller,” has a racing stripe running down its face – “Ernest Hemingway meets Prada,” says Combs.
Listen to Combs talk about his father’s own tongue-in-cheek trophy room, racing stripes, and more on “Big Baller.”
Another striking piece is “Apparel,” a hand-carved wood sculpture of a military jacket that also showcases Combs’ tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. “It’s a play on man and nature,” he says.
“This is a pivotal piece in my creative journey,” says Combs. “My grandfather would give me these family heirlooms, and I felt so silly getting them sometimes, because I knew I wasn’t cut out to carry on the lineage of the great hunter, but I sure did love having fun with it.”
Listen to Combs describe the intricate details of “Apparel,” which includes surprising patches and medals.
“Wild Card” is on exhibit through September.