Into The Mind of Stephen Tompkins

Stephen Tompkins

For our readers who may be hiding under an artistic rock, how would you answer, “Who is Stephen Tompkins?”, in a paragraph or less?

Hey. Come out from under that rock. My name is Stephen Tompkins. I create.

How would you best describe your style of art?

Cartoon limbo, cartoon explosions, complex synchronic visceral experience. Eye candy.

Explain your philosophy behind creating multiplicities.

In a very brief nutshell…and I promise this is the longest answer of the interview…I don’t like the idea of just creating a static subject or presence. Right now I’m focused on the way absence and negative aspects of spatial arrangements as well as multiple partialities unfold or create dissonance in juxtaposition together. By showing multiple processes continually overlapping in one work, where linework is continually superimposed in fragments, oftentimes arbitrarily chosen from drawings then calculated in terms of arrangements on canvas, a new sort of hybrid of presence is constantly being born. Also, because of the cartoonesque nature of the linework, the viewer is forced to try and assemble and process these chaotic images, much like organic constellations, and try to make connections. The mind naturally wants to rationalize these things and compartmentalize them in bite-sized portions for understanding’s sake. It’s my aim and goal to create things that can’t be readily assimilated into an instrumental sort of rationality. It’s not a question of whether something is ‘done’ or not, because I believe something could be worked on forever. Some will disagree but I think they’re in denial about the nature of impermanence and under some spell of ‘stasis’. My approach regards a philosophical lifeworld approach, semi related to Buddhist concepts of the transitory nature of all things coming into being and passing away but using a culturally recognizable form, cartoon-like figures and fragments…but unlike the idea that it’s all an illusion, a silly cosmology meant to, on one hand, show the inherent chaos to it all, and on the other hand, to poke fun at the limits of what can be present to consciousness in one view…my animations which are rapid stream-of-consciousness frames/drawings illustrate this perfectly because you cannot hold onto one frame and cannot tell where the animation is going, as in traditional animation sequences. Some of the drawings are crude. This isn’t Disney’s world, it’s a darker realm of fear, uncertainty but elaborated through a familiar medium of linework..the cartoonesque. The Oblivweeus - Stephen Tompkinsidea is to illustrate that in a rapid succession of imagery, you can have the mind going haywire trying to comprehend what just happened, what was just witnessed. The idea of multiplicity is to confuse the mind in order to open up a space for thought. Most people have a set of values that is conscious or unconscious and they react to certain things based on their experiences. Most reactions to art in the general populace is a knee-jerk sort of reaction or explanations that are reductionist. But when someone is presented with something very foreign or in terms of my animations, time elapsed development of foreign imagery, the mind isn’t sure what to do. That’s partially the point. I still maintain the will to posit certain meanings that I see fit in my work, like death, desire, insanity…This goes for numerous processes or complexities at work that aren’t yet delineated by modes of signification. There are things and meanings that we can’t significantly appropriate or understand yet…my aim now is to create confusion and outline in a very shorthanded way the multiplicities of processes that are occurring simultaneously in the living world in the same way numerous descriptions could be applied to any given event. I want to show glimpses of traces of synchronous processes at once, simultaneously, a polymorphic sandwich. The universe and all the events unfolding are vastly complex so why should I create something that is just a banal imitation of what we are already familiar with. The idea is to push boundaries or reevaluate our presumptions, methods, and approaches.

My newest animation, for example, is exploring memory loss and fragmented cartoons are a vehicle to show lapses, blackouts, concussions, trauma, psychosis. I have certain things that have to be followed through regardless of what happens in the interpretations later on. I’m interested in multiplicities in schizophrenia and language, loose association, semantic recursivity, i.e. the endless play of signification and the impossibility of distilling essences. I’m totally against the notion that painting ought to reveal some truth about a subject or should distill essence. I am completely against meta-narratives, essences, archtypes, social trends (aside from myths which sometimes comically summarize human beings)… I want to create chaos, uncertainty, mixed emotions. I’m not satisfied with doing social commentary or trying to be witty with my work. I just focus on my own obsessions and visions. But I also believe in being an imp to the world in terms of expectations and the way the art world works. I don’t really play by any rules or genre norms, I just keep making my work according to my own interests. I’m somewhat irreverent to art world formalities of clique-ish norms in subcultures of art. Art can have elements of humor as long as it’s not purely reduced to that alone. That’s more for the realm of illustration. I want the work to be indeterminate and dreamlike in the processes I try to elaborate. It’s a process of also letting go of things in order to open up space for thought.

Leviathan - Stephen TompkinsWhat and/or who are your major influences?

The parade of inner desires and visions and dreams, I try to be mindful of those things first. Has anyone figured out their own mind yet? Shorthand influences might be cartoons, 80s arcade games, comics.

Congratulations on being nominated for the 2010 San Diego Art Prize Award! What other awards have you been nominated for? Think you’ve got a good shot to win this one?

Thanks. I was nominated for an SFMOMA Experimental Design Award in 2001 and have had some other recognitions from major curators in publications. The recognition from Robin Clark, curator of a major contemporary museum in San Diego was a nice surprise and welcomed.

Do you have a personal favorite piece? What does it mean to you?

Not really any favorite and I’m not really attached to the work other than I may be in disbelief at the outcomes which are many times completely unpredictable especially the animations which are stream-of-consciousness sequences drawn frame by frame on a light table. I often don’t know how they will come together. I tend to try to just keep moving on to the next experiment in my work. After 12 years of working I feel like I can get down on canvas what I want more successfully. But that’s related to my own attempts and not to an outside pressure or standard. When I’m done with the work, it’s done. My process is cathartic, and a sort of alleviation of existential anxiety so it’s also related to my psychic and physical health too, physiognomic awareness. Muscle movement, duration, pressure..etc…bodily awareness is part of the work.

Did you always want to become an artist? Why?

Most definitely. It’s in my blood. To me creating is like eating and breathing. If I stop, I would die. I actually get sick if I go too long without creating..something.

(If not, what were your other goals?)

President of the United States. I would run on the “philosopher king” platform.

Besides being an amazing contemporary artist, you are also a composer. What is “Rubbuds” and how did you come about composing the score for it?

I became really interested in composing in 1990 when I studied electronic music theory and composition with Rudolph Bubalo – his work is fantastic. He made an impression on me about creating music from your own inspiration, not from the mechanical instrumental way of composing in terms of theory.
Also, out of necessity due to creating animations, I compose my own soundtracks. I’m finding many parallels in my composing to my animations and painting, and I promise that my work is going to be getting very interesting and blending these things up way more with the upcoming solo shows..

‘Rubbuds’ was directed by Jan Chen of Duck Animation studios. We got in touch and decided to work together. I was nominated for a Maverick Movie Award for “Best Original Score” and was thrilled because it was my first commercial score for a film aside from my own work. Scoring for film is a bit more restrictive though and I prefer to work with free reign and not be tied to visual cues..I like to be able to close my eyes to music and hear it on its own terms too without visuals.

Schizophrenicnude - Stephen TompkinsWho are your favorite musical artists?

Again this goes back to what I was saying about citing certain influences, but if I had to say…John Zorn, Mike Patton and many of his bands and projects, Frank Zappa, Gyorgy Ligeti, Carl Stalling, Bernard Hermann, Danny Elfman, Daniel Johnston, to name a few. I love the artists and composers who were cutting edge in their day, likeErik Satie. But I also occasionally like heavy metal and death metal for adrenalin rushes, I like jazz.. Monk, Mingus, Ornette Coleman, and so on. World music too. I play many things in the studio when I work…The more exotic, the better. Ever heard Dion MacGregor Dreams Again? – it’s on John Zorn’s label ( – the guy’s roommate recorded his spoken dreams – he’s known as a somniloquist. That has to be one of my all time favorite albums ever. I like Crispin Glover’s one CD he recorded. That guy fascinates me and I can’t wait to see his trilogy of films. I also like coast to coast am once in awhile for kicks when I work late.

You’ve single handedly filmed, directed, and produced a music documentary about your friend and musical artist Daniel Johnston. What inspired you to make this documentary? What was it like doing it all on your own?

I was living in Austin in 1999. I met Daniel at one of his shows and he invited me to his home. The same day I was going to visit, I went and bought a Digital Hi-8 camera and showed up at his house. He agreed to just freely perform many of his guitar songs and piano songs for me including many improvised moments. So I brought a tripod and let the camera roll and I held onto that footage for 10 years and just released it on iTunes. It was completely created and funded by myself and is selling really well for an indie produced set of videos and album known as “Daniel Johnston at Home LIVE”, the only videos of Daniel selling on iTunes currently:

The basic idea was to show Daniel performing in his own intimate environment and not in concert.
A few months after filming, Daniel and I also had a two man art exhibition In July 1999 in Austin called “The Art of Daniel Johnston & Stephen Tompkins”. It was my first big show ever and it got some nice press in Austin. I was blown away because I had admired and respected Daniel’s intense personality, work, and self-promoted dedication to his own vision and still I’m so grateful that Daniel liked my work and wanted to do a show. It shows Daniel’s pure innocent sense of collaboration. Daniel is one of those incredibly rare anomalies and I feel really fortunate to have spent time with him and learned a great deal about art and music from him.

Doing it on my own was a challenge. It took nearly 10 years with so many other things going on with my work to finance it and get it out there to his fans and the public. But I felt it was an important piece of Daniel’s history and I felt it was my responsibility to get it out there.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?If all of the talents above weren’t enough, you’ve added “Actor” to your range of professions. You played an EMT in the 2009 Werner Herzog film “My Son, My Son. What Have Ye Done?” Do you enjoy acting? What was it like being on set with such accomplished actors making such an intriguing film?

While that was an incredible experience, I’m not pretending to be an ‘actor’ in the craft sense of the word. That is my first and last film. I really just wanted to be immortalized for 5 seconds by Werner Herzog. I volunteered to do that film as an extra initially because I found out Werner Herzog was going to be filming a David Lynch produced film in San Diego and I just wanted to observe, you know, maybe in a crowd scene just to be there and SEE Herzog work. The name of the film is “My Son My Son What Have Ye Done?” about a guy named Mark Yavorsky, a San Diego guy in the 1970s, who is inspired by a Sophocles play and ends up killing his mother with a sword. The story was so insane I had to be part of it. So I contacted the casting director and sent a few photos of me and then I got an email saying Werner Herzog wants you to play the EMT role. Apparently they selected me out of a hundred people. I had a shaved head so I kinda fit the bill. That blew my mind that Werner Herzog selected me because I love all of his work especially Aguirre Wrath of God and Where the Green Ants Dream.. and many of his the films where he worked with Klaus Kinski. Kinski’s bio is one of my favorite books. Luckily I didn’t have to speak in the film, but I did do a handful of backgrounds scenes and at one point I did 9 takes with just Willem Dafoe and me in the camera view, one of my favorite actors. Not to mention being on set with great actors like Chloe Sevigny, Michael Shannon, Udo Kier… I was really in awe most of the days on the set and in disbelief…I was nervous as hell but was able to stay relatively calm and did pretty well in my scenes. I told my wife that this is the first and last film I ever want to do so it was more part curiosity and to be part of a Herzog film in any capacity than to pursue acting. That would be hell to me. But I do like directing and producing and my Daniel Johnston film has inspired me to want to do more directing.

If you could teach one lesson about creativity to the entire world, what would it be? Why?

Be yourself and live according to your nature.

Is there anything you have coming up that we should keep an eye out for?

War - Stephen TompkinsSome new paintings and a new animation will premiere at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego in the exhibit “Here Not There” from June 5th through Sept. 19th this year. Also showing in Munich Amsterdam in May, Los Angeles in July, and Vienna in October. I update my shows on my site frequently,

Are there any shout-outs you want to make?

To my wife Heather and my boys Alexander and Ethan – they’re the best thing in the world to me and to Robin Clark for the recent recognition and proper art world ‘legitimation’…and to Lucia Sanroman for being recepetive to my work inviting me to show at MCASD and to my new gallery dealer Luis De Jesus who understands that I’m not totally nuts and actually know what I’m doing and where I’m going (Luis De Jesus Gallery Los Angeles) and most recently to John Zorn (project down the road this year fingers crossed). Also, and I can’t forget, Marco Schwalbe of Intoxicated Demons Gallery who has become a good friend and is promoting my work in Germany and beyond.

Interview by Timothy Bonner

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