THIS IS STEPHEN TOMPKINS
The elusive title of being an “artist” has been confusing me lately. Being branded as an artist myself I really can’t tell anymore who my peers are. I mean, if I break my conundrum down to its core… to its nucleus… I perceive a line that divides an artist who is merely a craftsman and one who takes the extra mile and put IDEAS in his art and QUESTIONS in his audience’s minds. One is more about the end product’s aesthetics and one is more about the concept behind what he does. In this world full of shallow necessities where niceness and redundancy keeps people in line we tend to ignore these minute yet, for me, vital considerations.
Stephen Tompkins is of the later. He is driven by ideas; his process is fueled by a sort of urge to better understand the human condition. In the presence (or even binary presence) of such a thinker, one tends to be awed by his vast comprehension about this travesty that we call life… this immensely confusing existence…this chaotic soup where we are all broiling in.
THIS IS STEPHEN TOMPKINS — and these are the things crawling inside his brain.
Interview by Crist Espiritu
I see a lot of layers in your work. I love it. It’s like seeing multiple paintings at once. What’s the story behind this?
First, I’m a bit long-winded-old-school so I apologize in advance. I can’t do this in 140 characters so I’ll comment on the more chaotic works I created. The first thoughts I had just before creating those works was that the world itself is often in violent contrast and all sorts of forces are constantly clashing and at war and odds. So my natural curiosity led me to just start having these fragmented elements superimposed, transparent, and in visual conflict using variety of fragments from many different drawings.
Even my more figurative works reflect this fragmentation, absence and lack in these works is about the mechanics of desire. I’m not quite sure when it happened, but I’m thinking more in fragments than in cohesive concepts – I like to leave loose ends when it comes to meaning in my work. This allows for more imagination and the viewer to explore their own minds while looking. Fragmentation doesn’t mean less to me, in fact it opens up all sorts of new ways of connecting meaning. The painting Townhall for instance was painted shortly after seeing bunch of townspeople who were shouting over one another at a politician. It reflects the synchronic/simultaneous aspects of reality where many processes are occurring at once. In music, for instance, we can have a dissonant chord. This is visually what I’m after in some of the work. To show this non-harmonious simultaneous multiplicity visually.
Conceptual and visual dissonance is more interesting to me than always balancing things out. Some of the work was studied in near total darkness in my studio as I worked on it. The eyes play tricks on you with lower lighting levels and one can ‘see’ in a different way – the way the lines meets and connect or not. The idea is that there are incongruent processes at work at all times and these paintings are meant to keep the viewer’s eye travelling. You cannot rest on any one thing for too long. This is why stream-of-consciousness animation appeals to me so much. Same holds true for music. The passage of a phrase in music is dynamic and is constructed in time and also synchronically. Visually one can achieve similar concepts.
So they are meant to be visually dynamic where larger figurative forms arise out of the microcosm of clashing lines and color. The inherent harmony of the world or even in painting is an utterly ridiculous concept to me. The world is not a tidy place, is not neat and is oftentimes a mess. I don’t always like ‘careful’ painting. The word secure comes from “se” (without) and “curas” (care). I like to think of the zen masters calligraphers when they write. There are streaks and imperfections in their brush strokes, but there’s an evidence of mastery and confidence in the execution. One can’t cut neatly through the jungle of the psyche at all times.
Additionally, there is sometimes or something sublime in seemingly haphazard, or lightning fast creation. I’m definitely indifferent to achieving perfected looking objects on canvas. My focus involves more rapidly executing the immediate ideas and imminent/meditative working processes. I think the first step is obvious and in a meditative state is to recognize this aspect of the inner world, to confront it. In the “Real”, everything is this undifferentiated mass of
power and form so, I want to bring the madness to the surface all at once as an undifferentiated mass of visual phenomenon at once. It’s meant to make the viewer uneasy and to simply let things go. The paintings are about deliberate erring, a conceptual nomadism in order to attain insight into the accidental nature of one’s own consciousness. It’s a form of deliberate erring to arrive at a new meaning and to shake up your own presumptions about reality. I’m not referencing or making commentary on history or current affairs or any art lineage.
I’m not an ‘urban’ artist or a ‘graffiti’ artist or an ‘outsider’ etc. I’m probably in a mix of many different things but those categories are unimportant to defining myself. I think there’s many artists who think in terms of ‘collecting presences’ and compartmentalize their concepts and identities too much. I want to obliterate this way of thinking – my work is more about the subjective relational and relative processes. I prefer a personal scrambled reality, like Artaud’s later poetry when he was writing in Rodez asylum, one can’t get a hold on these impossible meanings but the words are incredibly exciting in terms of moving into totally new territory and meaning. And of course, the medium of comics and cartoons, bright colors are just an easier way to invite people in to look because the forms are non-threatening in general. It’s my goal to convey relational complexities through a darker fragmented visual vocabulary.
Another experiment: I superimposed all of the movements from Mozart’s 40th symphony into one layered recording. This was the start of the idea. It was amazing to listen to because I can hear the trademarked phrases of Mozart but the experience became a jumbled mess of tempo, a phrasing, and harmony, etc… it was a fun thing to do and hear. It’s meant to be synchronous juxtaposing of the seeming-same harmonies that stacked up amount to a chaotic snapshot. So for me the question is that painting could conceptually represent these incongruent processes, albeit via fragmented cartoons, like a comic archaeological riddle.
I think dream worlds are stratified like an onion in the psyche and our associations are not always guided reasonably in the way we want, and not always in a way where we control. Letting go of control in one’s compositions can be liberating, of painting everything in its right place to me seemed like a good exploration. Jorge Luis Borges once said about his writing, “I try not to edit as I write.” And for me the same thing holds true when I create. I get a thrill out of accident and discovery. I’m really amazed that there isn’t more focus on fragmentation and lack. When I see trends now in urban art for instance, I see whole concepts like illustrations, nice, little-tightly-wound characters and realities. I’m not so sure however that this is challenging our illicit presumptions about reality. My goal is to create shifts in the visual field, to play with the way form and color is assimilated by sight.
Perception is not given and we can achieve all sorts of tricks with compositions, so it makes sense to explore these realms more. What about a state of decay and continual assimilation? This logic has not been fleshed out thoroughly. I’m not talking about an organic ‘presence’ but of multiplicities — all things at war visually. A conceptual metastasis. The new geniuses of the world will be able to draw the most radical unassumed and unrelated elements into an organic combination. From the high to the low, from the comical to the tragic at once. Human beings need to strive for more associations, a schizo-concept or analysis like Gilles Deleuze explored in philosophy; One that is not mad, but yields a greater process of connectivity.
Your pieces are very colorful and are so, well, for lack of a better term, “trippy”. Can you tell me how you come up with these images? Where do you get these colors? the fluid lines and seeming flowing forms… what are they about?
I like bright colors. My nervous system has an addiction to bright and intense colors and distorted and fragmented form. I can’t explain that. I like radical difference and unique color combinations. I don’t always plan these combinations ahead of time but discover them in the process.
Tell me a bit about your process. Can you share us how you pick your subjects? I mean, I can still see figures in you paintings, but I’m not sure… they could be intended as abstract expressionistic strokes.
The painting ‘Plasmatea’ is a good example. It is a scene from a Fritz Lang film. I simply borrowed a still from one of his films from a snapshot I took of the TV and used the posed figures as the subjects in the study then completely effaced them with my own visual vocabulary. The snapshot acts as the setup, the wireframe that is then effaced completely. Nobody on earth could ever recognize what it is because it is a non-important scene and the entire image was painted out or borrowed as a guide, then reconstructed with my imagery. I like interacting with other images and reinventing the visual field. I’m currently doing this with some famous scenes in movies now and want to do a show around this. It would be more interesting to me to take a famous movie scene and efface it or remake it with radiant psychotic colors and imagery.
When did you start getting into animation? In this field, who were your influences… who are the people you admire?
My first animation was made in 2007 and a stream-of-consciousness short loop about 1 minute long called ‘GummyMorph’. The idea was to animate without a narrative and without a preconceived notion about what would unfold. It’s more of a meditation on dynamic forms in time. I just happened to like more playful imagery. Robin Clark of the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego said that I successfully combine the sublime and ridiculous in my animations. I take ‘ridiculous’ as a compliment. I enjoy early cartoons like Woody Woodpecker, Tom and Jerry, Popeye, Merry Melodies, Looney Tunes, many of the classic cartoons I grew up with. I can watch them all day. I also like surrealist animators like Bruce Bickford, especially the collaborations he did with Frank Zappa and Jan Svankmajer films.
Do you have different concepts that you want to convey with your animation works and your paintings? I mean they are parallel mediums but the process and the effects are very different. Do you exploit those differences to your advantage? If so, how?
I think it would be incredible to animate the imagery in my paintings. I need a team for the next one I’m doing. I have begun to experiment with subjects and narratives in animation. My goal is to do a sort of Tom-and-Jerry length cartoon in the style of my more figurative paintings complete with a fragmented-Carl-Stalling-esque soundtrack too.
Tell us the story behind your animation piece Blackout Memoir/Invisible Voyage. What is it about? Is there a narrative behind it? What sort of effect did you want your audience to experience?
There is no narrative. The meaning, is completely derived from the unfolding of seemingly unrelated mirrored movements – like a very psychotic-Rorschach-ink-blot-FUGUE. For the soundtrack I used Tibetan bowls and chanting. It sounds diabolic and menacing – a calm creepy that is sneaking up on someone – but this is suspended and keeps looping without resolve, a dynamic stream-of-consciousness drawing. It is very breath oriented, one could meditate to the sound. Again, this is a form of meditative awareness. I think there is a tendency to find concrete meaning in things and life. I tend to find that really annoying because to me there is no resolve, we are thrown here and need to keep moving. There’s many fights and wars over people clinging to notions that things will last forever. We’ve got to be in sync and dynamic with the coming and going of things. Things are in constant flux, so why pretend otherwise. Meaning is not static. Humans need to learn a new form of dynamic relational thinking, more radical association, even among seemingly random objects and meaning or illusions is good.
What keeps you doing what you’re doing? What keeps you creative and hyped about it?
I love experimentation. I love the colorful and comic forms and exploring my own subjective vocabulary and modes of expression. It’s like a very good drug that you never come down off of. It’s a trip that never ends for me. Part of this obsession is the assurance that all things can be transformed continually in life. Can’t be worried to step outside of your comfort zones and it’s importasnt for me personally to do different things in art. I don’t get how some artists can paint the same style for years. I think this is a form of society-imposed insecurity about ‘consistency’. Bertrand Russell’s line comes to mind that consistency is the bugbear of mediocrity. Don’t be consistent. Also, it is very meditative for me to create and push boundaries and explore hybrid mediums. It keeps me remembering that there aren’t rules. Everything is permissible in art so why setup or impose parameters on what you can explore. Stupid eh?
No, man, not at all. I totally agree with what you just said about artists who do the same things over and over. I don’t get it as well. It seems boring…redundant…no growth.
No, man, not at all. I totally agree with what you just said about artists who do the same things over and over. I don’t get it as well. It seems boring… redundant… no growth.
Do you have any advice for upcoming artists?
DON’T GO TO ART SCHOOL! Read tons of books in school that have nothing to do with your major. Quit school. Gnaw your finger off. Rebel. Be outside of it all when creating. The paths and careers and working methods of different artists are so vastly different. Find your own path and carve it out. Do what you think is best for your vision.
So what’s next for Stephen Tompkins? Are there any future projects that you’d like to share our readers?
I have some work going to STROKE in Munich, a show in September at Rook & Raven Gallery in London with two other amazing artists and a show and I have some work going to Vienna in an international urban art exhibit at Ernst Hilger’s Brotkunsthalle. Working on an iPhone game concept now too with a great design/developer in the Bay Area. It’s been a project in the works for over a year now and it’s gonna be good.
What do you think of DOZE?
I like that DOZE’s motto is ‘perpetually pushing forward’. While you need to remain in the moment to get the task at hand nailed, you also got to have vision and drive to evolve, and to evolve without fear of experimentation and new directions. I think DOZE Collective’s philosophy reflects a positive dynamism of life. And I also have to add here that DOZE also has highlighted the work of a great artist named Jaybo!
Interview by Crist Espiritu
Follow Crist Espiritu on Twitter @crist_espiritu