photo by Robert Benson
It’s been a minute since the last Secret Still interview, and lucky for me I don’t have to apologize. I answer to no one. Lucky for you the newest interview is a whopper from SoCal artist Stephen Tompkins (mentioned previously). Interviewing an artist who started out as a philosopher resulted in some wordy answers. Stephen suggested that maybe I should edit them down, but that’s one step away from censorship in my eyes, so everything is presented to you in its full-length glory. I was so interested in everything he said that I couldn’t figure out what to cut anyway. In the interest of full disclosure, I did fix some typos. And I added in links for those of you who might be philosophically challenged. Read the interview after the jump.
1. Age/Location/Art Education:
“I’m 37. I’m not old” - I’ve been waiting all year to be able to say that. I love that segment in Monty Python’s “The Holy Grail” - but I really am 37 and I’m not old!
I live in Southern California with my wife Heather, son Alexander and we’re expecting our 2nd baby boy in a few weeks.
For the most part, I spend a good deal of my time driving to LA but live in Oceanside.
I had some formal art training my first year of college at Cleveland State University and Electronic Music Composition under the late great composer Rudolph Bubalo. A brilliant composer, teacher, Clevelander. If you have not heard his music, and most of you haven’t - go and buy the CD of his work (New World Records- a great music publisher) with Orchestra and Synthesizers - just amazing.
As far as other education, I have a degree in Philosophy from Bowling Green State University and did some post-graduate Masters work at Ohio University in Phenomenology and Semiotics at the Philosophy Department. But then I had to leave and try to “apply” that esoteric knowledge to the world and I felt going back to my roots, art, was the best way to blend these things in my head. I wanted to create art centered around things I love, like cartoons, and work on my own technique while incorporating philosophical concepts I studied, like Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts of “desiring-production”, “reterritorialization” and Derrida’s deconstruction. Many people throw this word around and have no idea what they’re saying - most people don’t even know it comes from Heidegger’s DESTRUKTION, that it’s not necessarily a destructive act, but a “creative disorganization”.
My mentor, Algis Mickunas, who has written one of the best primers on Phenomenology, told me one day that he met Heidegger at his house in the Black Forest in Germany and Heidegger’s wife came to the door and Mickunas said “I’d like to see the professor” and Heidegger’s wife said “He’s thinking”; my prof looked in through the door and Heidegger was watching a SOCCER match. That was the best story I’ve ever heard from a philosophy professor and way more interesting than anything Heidegger wrote! I should’ve done my thesis on that incident.
My biggest disappointment these days is wishing there was more philosophy in art, more will to debate concepts of art, the sublime. Pretty soon, from the insane proliferation of instant digital culture and the dissipation of low and high art, there’s going to be a rapid decline in traditional approaches and more synthesis of multi-sense installation, even galleries will lean towards user experience, perhaps even interactive art on some levels. I’m planning for a much more robust show next year that will fuse all sorts of my interests. I’m growing tired of seeing paintings nailed to a wall.
To stick to the topic here, I love to go to the library to research things though, check out a bunch of books and keep my mind fresh with new ideas. I try to read all sorts of materials from philosophy, music, literature, poetry, chaos theory, psychology, buddhism, the whole gamut. I think living life bent on one aspect or focus is just pathetic and uninteresting. The world has some many varieties of and modes of expression and to think art-centric all the time seems to nauseate me. For instance, I was just reading “Honey, Mud, Maggots, and Other Medical Marvels” - fascinating book that talks about the use of maggots in healing. Disgusting, but nonetheless fascinating. Now, should I get lost in the woods and get a horrible infection, I can put some maggots on the wound and let them gnaw away at the dead flesh.
2. What brought you to (and keeps you in) California?
Heather, my wife, convinced me to move from Austin.
In short, I met my wife while returning from Austin Texas to Cleveland for Xmas one year. She was visiting her family and flew in from LA. My best friend Mike Holland* introduced us. Mike and I (*see my Giant Robotic Bugs project) were buddies in high school and at Bowling Green until we nearly bombed out of BGSU because we took too many trips to Wonderland. I’m considering doing a psychotic reinterpretation graphic novel of our semester there because the experience was so powerful as far as redefining the way I think. I was short on academics as an undergrad and investing in my mind then more than the straight and narrow path to “getting a good job”. Anyways, to make a long story short, I met Heather my wife there and I was flying out to LA on a regular basis. Because of work, she was relocated to San Francisco and we both moved to North Beach where I first planted my feet in California. I had my first studio in North Beach right off of Grant/Vallejo. Once I began to get more of an understanding of the Beats and the history in that area alone, I was hooked. I’d read all the Beats, but as soon as I saw North Beach, I realized that this was a good place to work at the time.
Now that I’m down in LA, I’m really drawn to the art world down here. Both cities have some very exciting things going on but the two cities are really different the way art is received.
3. Where do you get your inspiration?
It comes from many different places and oftentimes not directly correlated to visuals or art. I practice Vipassana meditation and it’s a great vehicle to dive way below the surface and start to connect all sorts of wild things. But of course, it’s obvious from looking at my work that I really love cartoons. I grew up watching old Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry, Hanna Barbera, Scooby Doo, and then later in life Ren & Stimpy. Musically I’m a big fan of Carl Stalling - you can buy two volumes of his works from the 40s and 50s - amazing stuff…But I also can appreciate work by Caravaggio, Vermeer, Bosch, Rembrant, Dali, and so on. I feel that what I do as an artist is conceptually, in part, a sort of blended stew of these things and that these things themselves, or my recollection of all those things are not necessarily THOSE things either. A manifestation of likeness in one’s work to another is in most cases relative to one’s living world. It’s a shorthand translation of influence, a peripheral understanding that sways thought, likes and dislikes and how it affects my own methods and process. As Warhol said” Everyone borrows from everyone”. This is part of humanity - that the world is inter-subjective and shared, even if at times warring metaphors are in violent contrast. This trend in certain art circles to say, “Look at this - it’s so unique, it’s so original” - that may be in rare instances, but for the most part, these things some magazine and galleries and even artists say to sell work is just totally amusing to me, sometimes just idiotic.
I don’t like talking at art openings about work. When people ask “What’s this one about?” - I say “If I could tell you I wouldn’t have created it” - but it’s not enough, people want stories, people can’t handle being left hanging. I don’t want a perfect totality in my work, I don’t want to have the answers for anyone and in fact, I surprise myself with the outcome of my own work. I try with all my might to have no precedent in my mind before I create other than the intuition of freely drawing and cutting up my work and reassembling it into interesting configurations similar to Burroughs cut-ups, most of which indicate nothing more than a process of infinite partialities. My method of work is really no different than people like Adolf Wolfli in that I am preoccupied with my own fantasy and phantasms and how to translate these bizarre thoughts! In this sense, because it’s relative to a simple stream-of-consciousness technique and relative to my idiosyncratic physiology and motor skills, it’s just a feeling of freedom to meander all day long with a pen on paper and to discover new peculiar forms and beasts. In my opinion, it’s easier for me to recognize and appreciate the process of individual desire, of autonomy to see the peculiarities of an individual thought process unfold, akin to the aloof aspect of a transitory world, of an impermanent structure of meaning than to try and summarize some stupid social commentary or universality, whether it’s a decadent/esoteric group value of lowbrow art (tiresome..), or something sublime. I find no use in grasping at definitions or summarizing what others want, but meandering in my own desiring-obsessiveness. Call it selfish, but I call it meditative. You don’t call the Dalai Lama self-indulgent for meditating - you call him a guru. My work is meditative and is a coping strategy for the end of this grand illusion. That includes you, art world, pushing up daisies.
Or it’s not enough to see incomplete concepts. This bugs the shit out of me! If it’s a final concept and the meaning is so readily available, why the fuck make the painting? A good work of art or a great painting is a remainder of something greater than itself.
But then some people think art is a bowl of alphabet soup. Whatever creams your twinkie..
You may concoct something genuinely clever or devise a combination or style seemingly unlike any other, but I guarantee that 100 years from now, you’ll be part of some bigger school, relative to a history. Sometimes I wish all the people who thought they were in some magical original vaccuum were lined up in front of me in meditation pose and I could walk up behind them with a bamboo stick and crack them on the head!
There are distinct forms of style, at times very radical and distinct forms of style among certain artists, innovators, but even the greatest artists’ work was relative to a certain historicity, a certain method or dilemma of their age. It’s naive to think the greats had no precedent or no relation to their other contemporaries.
So I’m chasing this method, this dilemma and I’m enjoying the ride so far. I want to evolve. I think the idea of consistency is just plain STUPID. I had people say “you need to show a consistent body of work” when I was just painting. But I thought “That’s a fucking stupid thing to say.” and of course summons Bertrand Russell’s quote “Consistency is the bugbear of mediocrity”. Rauschenberg once said “I try to see how often I can successfully CHANGE.” - I love that idea, because he is free. He hasn’t imposed a rule of what others expect from him, i.e. to be consistent. Once you are consistent, you are toast, done, burnt turkey. And I can’t imagine a working process of just doing the same shit for eternity unto death. Christ that’s HORRIBLE. I think this goes for musicians too - if you’re putting out the same album every year, you’re eventually just becoming a stereotype of yourself. I like to think “How different can I be? How much can I radically shift my intentions without losing my audience”. But there has to be evolution in your work or you become a bore. I’m getting heavily into animation these days because it will allow me to synthesize my music composition, and my drawings and paintings will MOVE. That’s exciting and keeps things fresh. I’m not too worried if anyone likes it or not. But I have certain personal obsessions that I have to follow through, even at the expense of losing everyone in the process. Actually my last year was working better than any year because of this diversifying strategy. It goes for business, it goes for art. Be versatile, be resilient and don’t compromise your heart and mind for some yahoos who want to tell you what’s up or what’s good.
4. How has your philosophy background influenced your art?
Tremendously. I studied with excellent teachers in Ohio. One professor I had in particular, Donald Callen at BGSU.
Philosophy did turn out to be a curse at one point in my life where I was trying to shift gears out of grad-school mode and adapt to things. Once you’re in the mode of thinking and communicating like a philosopher all day long, it gets a little burdensome to just sit and relax. I drove my family nuts at times because of this. Fortunately, I learned how to use my philosophy background to my advantage over the years and apply it to my work as an artist.
My thesis was entitled “The Phenomenology of Schizophrenia” and was an exegesis, among other things I was exploring, in defense of schizophrenics language as a real modality of expression in the living world. There always seemed to me to be a patronizing undercurrent in the history of psychoanalysis and I guess I thought I could subvert certain presumptions about schizophrenic realities in language and art.
5. What started you making art (go back to your childhood if you have to)?
I got serious about art in grad-school. I was in the library all hours of the day when not in seminar, researching over-sized art books and primarily works by ‘insane’ artists like Wolfli, and art brut out of Laussane Switzerland. It fascinated me, the individual suffering and how art became, in many case, these patient’s exclusive modality of expressing their world. Work by schizophrenic artist fascinates me more than high art or any formalized work in galleries. These are works and testimonials of hells and beauty unlike anything you can imagine. If you’re a thinking compassionate person, you can’t help but to be moved by such stories.
6. Can you elaborate on some of the common themes in your work and how you express them?
Part of it involves my obsession with the accidental events and the accidental juxtaposition and incongruencies of thought. I like arriving at, and discovering new meaning. I still like to think of Chomsky’s phrase “Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously” because I think it demonstrates the absurdity of meaning. I like Dada for this reason. I used to read tons of Donald Barthelme’s short stories, pretty much the father of post-modern literature. I like thinking about postmodern contexts like seeing a segment on CNN about Iraq and then a Swiffer commercial comes on the TV right after that…or a newscaster switching emotionally according to content mid-delivery. These are the breaks and flows of a sick reality that has forced it’s way into mass consciousness…perhaps even causing all sorts of modern ailments like ADHD. But for me it’s really a source of abundant insanity at my disposal if it is calculated and somewhat thought out, and of course avoided (I don’t like sitting and watching tv). Even though there is an accidental nature to the initial drawings I make in terms of stream-of-consciousness drawing, there is a very calculated reasoning to the hybrid outcomes I create or the large sphere of form evident in the compositions. I like to think that while the painting looks like doodles, these doodles are the microcosmic level forming the larger macrocosm…and of course keeping with a sense of comic explosiveness, as if the comic forms themselves are on the verge of breaking down, decaying, dying, “burning in hell” as you say.
7. What is your process for creating a new piece (go into as much detail as you want)?
My process for paintings is pretty straightforward. I draw a bunch of ink drawings on typing paper or cardstock. Maybe 10-12 maybe more, as much as 25-30. Then I scan everything, then I begin to deconstruct the work on a computer - I rotate orientations, I tweak and pop or erase things using Photoshop and try to assemble a new world with these fragments. As Artaud wrote “Found a civilization on the dust of your bones”. Then it’s taking a couple different studies, printing them out, then into the studio to scale the work or fragments of work on canvas. At this point, it’s not just a matter of duplicating the “study”, there is also a cut up process. I also turn the canvas 90 degrees or 180 degrees and work with it that way until the forms manifest in a way that makes it interesting to me. Sometimes if the work is more figurative, then I might maintain a certain orientation. If you look at Pink Painting I on my site (pictured above), you’ll see that one form is upside down - that’s a basic idea of changing the viewer’s orientation, because most typically, the orientation is TOP=DOWN. Think of Einstein’s relativity and that observations of a painting are relative to the viewer, but I always consider a bat viewing my work while hanging upside down looking too or a dizzy reality, a non-fixed perspective - like that painting of a pole vaulter where all frames are superimposed over one another. I like to approach an organic perspective, one that is continually changing positions. RESTLESS style.
8. What goes on in a normal day for you?
Nothing is never normal here.
My wife and I wake up early because of my 3 year old son Alexander and we play with him in the morning before he goes off to his school during the week. With a child, life is very busy. As a dad to this amazing boy, I feel really thankful to have him in my life and share art and music and things with him. Kids are fantastic little humans and can enrich your insight into the world in many ways. We also have another little boy on the way and right now my son is thrilled to have a new baby brother coming soon.
As far as working, there’s times where I will just sit and stare at nothing for an hour then work. Or play a video game when I have time. There’s not really a formula to my day. It’s usually working on a variety of projects, art and other odd things I’m working on, taking breaks to think, and then just moving forward…I used to work really well in the evening until I nearly was killed from adrenal exhaustion and had to slow down a little. My creativity still kicks into high gear in the evening, call it the kidney meridian.
9. What occupies your mind aside from art?
When can I sleep next?
10. What are you working on now? Any shows coming up?
I’m working on a new body of work and taking my time. I’m not rushing to show. I have a couple current prospects in LA and NY but I am not committing to anyone right now in the interest of the work itself. I’m working on an animated film called “Sugar White Death” and hope I can do something unique with this film. Another new project I’m working on as of this month is an online game comprised exclusively of my art. The project has been picked up by a company in LA to develop it and I’m gonna promise that the concepts, technology and other aspects of the game are unprecedented and will be online, and viral, hopefully by February.
To see more of Stephen Tompkin’s work visit: http://www.stephentompkins.com/