Today I stopped by 21c to see their latest exhibit, Wild Card by Michael Combs. Combs is a former hunting decoy maker-turned preservationist who uses his art to explore the ways humans seek validation. I found the collection to be compelling and insightful, but I think that art and creative expression can be added to Combs’s list.
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.