Michael Combs reminds us that, as biologist Marc Bekoff wrote, “enthusiasts often like to hang signs that say ‘Gone Fishin’ or ‘Gone Huntin’’. But what these slogans really mean is ‘Gone Killing.’” Like Bekoff, Combs intimately understands the swagger and posturing motivating today’s huntsman. His family were baymen and decoy carvers in Long Island’s Great South Bay since America since the 17th century yet he decided to apply his knowledge of the hunt to a peaceful purpose. To this end, Combs compassionately steps back from his lineage and employs traditional hunting references and skills to intellectually investigate the origins and outcomes of our purest predatory instincts. His solo-survey show at Louisville’s 21c Museum, “Wild Card” features fifteen-years’ of Combs’s multi-media work with Lincoln Logs, crocodile skin, animal antlers, shotgun shells, foul weather gear, rubber cladding and antique objects. Reflecting on his work here, Combs answers questions about the psychological, sexual symbolic and social function of our competitive spirit.
I am convinced there are two kinds of hunters in modern times. The first group romances with the nostalgic aspect of the hunt. They are not actually depending upon kill for the table but, for them, hunting represents an ongoing rite of passage. The second group is the trophy hunters. That is a whole separate opera. The motivation behind the trophy hunter would be an extreme distortion of power, control, fear and entitlement.
Initially I used the very same materials that my family used for centuries; wood, canvas, eel-grass, seaweed. My family were baymen, essentially they were scavengers using whatever was readily available. As my career progressed, I found myself branching out to less familiar, more challenging, materials such as leather, vinyl, aluminum, urethane-resins and porcelain. However I don’t ever see myself completely abandoning those traditional mediums.
Your lineage includes hunters, fishermen, boat builders and decoy makers. How does your family and childhood community respond to your art?
It is entertaining to me because I am supposed to represent the thirteenth generation of Combses as hunters and baymen and such. However, I was more fascinated by the natural environment, the materials and the tools of the trade far more than the actual kill. I recall, as a young boy of twelve, being down at our bay-house late at night on a long hunting trip and being terrified of having to use the outhouse because of the crickets and spiders that could get me. People who know me knew what drove me. They accepted it.
Yes, there was a terrible incident that I remember vividly. I was about fourteen. My friend and I skipped school on opening day of gunning season. I had my dog, Lady. She was a black Lab. I recalled how badly I wanted to kill and bring home a pair of Black Ducks to my father. I remember thinking, as I quietly waited, that this is no different to the primal act of a cat bringing home a dead bird to its master. As a pair of birds were slowly gliding in, I raised and fired. I clipping a wing. I had what is known as “a cripple.” Lady flew from the blind and retrieved the bird. The problem started there because the bird was still alive. For years, I watched my father and uncles kill birds with their bare hands. They turned the neck and, with a swift snap, the bird would fall to the ground like a wet towel. But it wasn’t working when I tried. The bird wouldn’t die. I tried and tried. I didn’t want to shoot it because the sun had gone down and we could get arrested for dusking. So I put the bird in a canvas backpack and started walking back home hoping the bird would die from shock. It didn’t and after 20 minutes it flared around in my backpack. It was horrific and I felt like a piece of garbage… far from the mighty great hunter – it was riveting. Hunting was pretty much over for me after that.
Do you see a connection between trophy collectors and art collectors? After all, aren’t art collectors, by virtue of being wealthy, really the alphas in a contemporary version of caveman hierarchies?
Perhaps it can be, but what is also interesting is the lateral connection that artists have with this elite group. Essentially we start out on the complete opposite ends of the socioeconomic scale however we have an extraordinary connection to one another; there are not many groups or classes that mate like that.
I enjoy playing with my American heritage both good and bad. I also love showing outside of New York City. There are many pockets throughout the US were I’ve been told my work would be well received. Louisville and i get along well. It was suggested to do a show from two wonderful collectors of mine some time ago and the time has come. This show is also scheduled to travel to Cincinnati and Bentonville Arkansas. I look forward to visiting the many pockets of this country.
Your recent work seems to focus more on international big game hunting, specifically of elephants, rather than deer and fowl. Why did you shift your focus?
Wildlife and its natural environment are really the presiding factors but I also enjoy prodding at art history. I believe that you are referencing my 2012 “Minds that Matter” white elephant on a carved pillow. For me, that a Bernini’s inspired work Blessed Ludovica Albertoni. Elephants and their spiritual grandeur have always mystified me. Ludovica Albertoni was the Mother Teresa of her time. I’ve wanted to make a surreal play on this piece for years.
Can you please talk about the significance of hunting and class in America. Here in England, the symbolism of the hunt seems inverted.
Yes, the right to hunt and own firearms in America is regarded as a constitutional right for all classes. I do respect that, to a certain extent, however when one has the ability to participate in a canned hunt – paying extraordinary amounts of money to hunt an animal that has been raised by humans until maturity and released in a fenced in plot of land to be hunted down, it is absolutely absurd. Thankfully canned hunting has been banned in over 20 states. Hunting in America today has truly become a reality show.
I am not surprised by the media focus on women hunters. Financially, it’s an under developed market that can be fueled by fear. It is another way to polarize an already super-charged, hot button issue. Gun control is tops in America today. Just the other evening, I watched a perfectly edited CNN special where a women is holding an AR15 assault rifle and says “when I hold this, it makes me feel good. It makes me feel comfortable, like I can get something accomplished”. Then they cut to a second anti-gun advocate saying, “They are nothing but killing machines” as an aerial view on Connecticut’s school shooting loops. The media will fan this fire well beyond any and all needed gun control regulation and they’ll shamelessly pull and exploit women into the process at the same time. For me, as I explore in much of my work, guns, hunting and killing were a warped rite of passage. It made me question gender, sexuality, and what makes me tick. It’s about personal and social identity for me; I was expected to be a man … and man up. I understand this is common but it seems especially big in America or at least in my America.