by Robert K. Wallace
Wild Card: The Art of Michael Combs, A Fifteen-Year Survey.
One of the attractions Newport-on-the-Levee has brought to Greater Cincinnati is the tourist version of the World War II “duck boat” on which you can cruise the Ohio River. Those of us who remember the “duck boat” that got run over by a barge on the Delaware River in Philadelphia will wear our life jackets.
Long Island artist Michael Combs has brought a different kind of duck boat to the installation on the first floor of Cincinnati’s 21c Museum. It is an authentic family heirloom from the 1880s, a wooden duck boat (also called a “gunning skiff”) symbolizing the concept of manhood he inherited from his male ancestors on Long Island who in the nineteenth century hunted whales as well as ducks and other gamesome creatures. We can look directly inside the duck boat suspended from the ceiling of the 21c lobby because it is upside down, the elongated neck of a large white swan hanging directly down to the floor on which the swan’s head is surrounded by bullet shells of the kind that might have brought the bird down, the latter inspiring the title of the work: Spent Cases. With this signature work of 1998, Combs began the process of overturning the cult of masculinity embedded in the Combs family motto: “I came, I saw, I hunted.” He was no longer able to condone the kind of manliness that pumps itself up by bloodying the bodies and breaking the necks of those living creatures and dying species still to be found in the woods and waters of our finite globe.
Combs, who attended the opening of the show in February, is a burly guy who could be a large guard or an undersized tackle on a college football team. He has instead battled what he sees as a constricting cult of manhood by making art that lovingly challenges everything he was raised to be. I say lovingly because the surfaces of his sculptures are beautifully shaped and smoothly finished. The violence he explores is not the gushing blood or gaping wound in the body of the prey, but what men do to themselves—and to their own potential for sensitive expression—by perpetuating a cult of killing no longer needed for survival in a century nurturing vegans old enough to vote, a killing cult whose primary purpose now is to enact dominion over our fellow creatures.
Early in the new century Combs began turning his experience as a maker of decoys for hunters and as a dissector of game for taxidermy inside out. His Three Drakes of 2000, Alpha Male of 2005, Field Day of 2011, and Wild Card of 2012 all undercut the ethos of the hunt by sculpting wooden decoys or stitching mounted trophy heads in a way that reverses the glorification of the killer. Unlike taxidermy, which disguises the dissection of the dead creature to create the illusion that we are seeing its reassembled body unmolested, Combs allows the stitches (and sometimes zippers) holding the body parts together to be seen as clearly as those in a patchwork quilt (or a tight-fitting evening dress). The unsettling effect of his mounted trophy heads is magnified in The Wish, in which the entire body of a smoothly stitched deer shape hangs by a rope in a gazebo-like decorative cage. This suspended shape is a grotesque variation on the medieval unicorn encircled by a fence in the famous medieval tapestry at the Cloisters Museum in New York City. It is also the exact embodiment of the wish of generations of hunters in the Combs family to bring down and hang up the biggest trophy of all in their Long Island environs, the body of the legendary albino buck who reveals himself only on the opening day of each hunting season, but has never been caught or shot, the “white stag” who is his family’s equivalent of the white whale in Melville’s Moby-Dick.
Most of the works in the fifteen-year retrospective at 21c deal directly with the traditions of hunting and gaming Michael Combs had absorbed from his family on Long Island, but one of the most recent works imports an African tradition to great effect. Man Up combines the initiation ceremony Combs had experienced as a young hunter going out for his first kill with quite a different coming-of-age tradition practiced by the Mankote tribe of Tanzania. In this composite sculpture, the iconic Grundéns suspenders that are part of the Combs family hunting garb provide counterintuitive support for the creation of the young Mankote male who marks his passage into manhood by carving the body mask of a pregnant woman, a symbol of fruition.
Adam and Eve, an archival digital print from 2012, completes a series that Combs began with How the West Won, a handcrafted football helmet he made from carved linden wood, birch wood branches, and animal antlers. Subsequent helmets entitled Adam and Eve bore the insignias of a Native American spearhead and a Lone Star to denote the Washington Redskin and Dallas Cowboy football teams—and to suggest the degree to which our most violent institutional contact sport replays the mythical dynamic by which Wild West was won by the heroic lone cowboy over the edenic but doomed redskin. Combs’ 2012 upper-body photo of a contemporary Adam and Eve facing each other while wearing only those helmets tenderly activates a variety of issues related to manhood, gender, history, and ecology implicit in the exhibition as a whole. Looking at this photographic Adam and Eve at the beginning of February made me happy that our culture has become courageous enough to begin to address the damage that concussions inflicted by contact sport do the human body. Returning to this photograph in early March made me think of the story I had just read a few days before in the New York Times indicating that the new requirement of protective helmets for young males on certain lacrosse teams is in some locales being extended to young women.
More often than not, encountering these newly created works in the 21c lobby put me back in the middle of the nineteenth century. I thought of Thoreau in 1854, recalling in Walden the pleasure he had taken in hunting as a boy, but now as an adult having “no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race . . . to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized.” I thought of Melville in Moby-Dick in 1851, in the first passage describing the killing of a whale, in which “the red tide poured from all sides of the monster like brooks down a hill,” creating a “crimson pond in the sea” from which the whalers’ reflected faces “glowed to each other like red men.” I thought of young Lucy Stone lecturing on Women’s Rights in Cincinnati in 1853, arguing with laser-like clarity that American men, as well as women, are deeply inhibited by gender roles dictating that men cannot be sensitive or women assertive. I thought of Emily Dickinson writing in her bedroom in 1862, appropriating the masculine language of hunting to dramatize her own courageous inner life in poems such as “My Life—had stood—a Loaded Gun” and “A Wounded Deer—leaps—highest.” I thought of Charles Melville Scammon, who in 1857 was the first whaling captain to methodically slaughter female and infant gray whales in the birthing lagoons of Baja California, yet who in 1874 published his loving tribute to that same species in Marine Mammals of the North-Western Coast of North America, a financial failure in his lifetime but now a classic.
Does the fact that some nineteenth-century thinkers and writers anticipated the reversal of consciousness by which Michael Combs is in our century upending the cult of hunting and manliness that he had himself inherited from the nineteenth-century mean that his art is by definition retrograde and not really of urgent concern in our now more ecologically conscious age? I think not. Like Scammon’s Marine Mammals, Thoreau’s Walden, Melville’s Moby-Dick, and Dickinson’s poetry were not widely read in the nineteenth-century. They only began to penetrate American culture at large in the mid-twentieth century. The social and ecological consciousness they represent is far from pervasive today. As long as Duck Dynasty remains a vital component of our popular culture, as long as the NRA continues to succeed in beating back the human revulsion to automatic weapons that wells up each time kids are murdered in our schools, there will be plenty of need for artists like Michael Combs in the galleries, museums, and lobbies of America.
Among the visual artists of the 21st century who express a compatible kind of consciousness across our nation are Aileen Callahan in Boston, George Klauba in Chicago, and Robert McCauley in Seattle. Callahan, after her series of oil paintings depicting the Birth of Moby Dick early in this century, is now creating a series of charcoal drawings depicting the vicissitudes of the whale’s skin. Klauba, after exploring man’s animalistic propensities in thirty nine Moby-Dick paintings created between 2003 and 2009, has gone on to explore the carnage in the waters of the Pacific during World War II. McCauley, after creating two decades of Moby-Dick painting and sculpture in Rockford, Illinois, is now celebrating the lives, bodies, and spirit of the bears, turtles, and birds that continue to animate the Puget Sound landscape of his youth.
The opening of the Michael Combs show at 21c was attended by a large audience indicative of the artistic vitality of the Greater Cincinnati community at this point in our new century. As a resident of Northern Kentucky, I was delighted to see a number of curators and gallery directors from of our side of the river. The river can still be dangerous if you are in a duck boat, but art is, more than ever, a bridge that unites us locally. As Dickinson wrote in 1864, “Faith—is the Pierless Bridge / Supporting what We see / Unto the Scene that We do not.”