by Keith Banner
In 1964, Susan Sontag wrote an essay called “Notes on ‘Camp’” that still wraps and winds its tentacles throughout culture today. Basically a survey of “Camp’s” meanings, practices and perversions, the essay reads like a Bible for drag, piss-elegance and artful political incorrectness used to both disembowel and deconstruct the mainstream. When I walked through, completely awe-struck, Michael Combs’ “Wild Card,” a fifteen-year survey of his work currently up at 21C Cincinnati, I thought about Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’” a lot. What she wrote a generation ago somehow finds itself transformed into sleek, fabulous, upsetting objects in Combs’ tight-fisted and radiant oeuvre.
Writes Sontag, “All Camp objects, and persons, contain a large element of artifice. Nothing in nature can be campy.” The centerpiece of Combs’ exhibit is the elegant and creepy mastery of form titled “The Wish,” a ghostly gilded cage in which hangs the fantasia carcass of a slaughtered deer constructed of wood, resin, urethane, and vinyl. It’s as if Damien Hurst and Alexander McQueen got invited to the same ballroom in the same dream, and decided to show up as Greek myth. Sontag continues, “Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style — but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.” The vision of the world Combs invents for us is neither a joke nor an outrage – it’s a particularized and stylized reprieve, a sort of repercussion based on the mechanics of being a predator trying to undo his predation. The element of artifice takes its orders from a natural world that has been disturbed beyond simple utility (completely “off”): this is unnecessary death as beautiful trophy, taxidermy turned into lush scorn.
That creepiness and elegance feed off of each other throughout the whole exhibit. “Heavy Bag” is a punching bag gone Gucci, reconstructed from high-end luxurious materials like crocodile skin and faux elephant skin. Masculine and feminine are merged in a soul-searching fashion here, but the campiness also pushes the whole enterprise beyond a simple statement about sexual politics. The painstaking luxury of the piece allows it to transcend itself. Sontag yet again: “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’ To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.” Masculinity is a “Heavy Bag,” but it also is completely overthought opulence, shiny and preened, something to be beaten and adored. Metrosexual role-playing now has a corporate logo.
The apotheosis of role-playing kink comes in two gloriously constructed football helmets, one titled “Eve,” the other “How the West Won.” The androgyny here has the boneheaded brilliance of a lumberjack wearing pearl earrings. Linden wood, birch wood branches, and antlers are fashioned into a stubborn skull décor that seems surrealistically intended and yet wholly ritualistic, maybe even useful, like masks for some kind of interstellar sex-changing rite. Combs has also photographed models sporting the helmets, a glittery Vogue chic.
All of Combs’ work employs that posh finish merged with a violent intensity obsessively buried within the artistry. Every object he makes seems to be ascend into mean-spirited glossy prayer, every idea launching into myth that evacuates the meaning of myth. His journey outside of gender and outside of manners and outside of existence itself has a lovely Duchampian finesse and a funky slyness right out of Rupaul’s “Drag Race.” He is in search of perfect moments that crystallize into jokes that allow all kinds of thoughts, images and ideas to intersect and simultaneously thicken and blur into permanence, into fetish and form. The last Sontag quote: “Camp is the triumph of the epicene style. (The convertibility of ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ ‘person’ and ‘thing.’) But all style, that is, artifice, is, ultimately, epicene. Life is not stylish. Neither is nature.”