Steve Gompf April 27, 1963 – March 4, 2018
Steve Gompf was the first person I met in Phoenix that became an enduring connection.
It was the winter of 2000 – 2001. I’m not sure of the exact month. I had moved to Arizona at the end of October; after being in town a couple of months, I finally made it out to the First Fridays art walk.
Steve Gompf was in the basement of the Luhrs Tower. He was working the Artlink table, passing out maps. Young, thin, Steve Gompf, with shaggy red hair and a beard. I had been involved with an arts non-profit back in Virginia, so I was curious about Artlink. I pestered him with some questions. I don’t think we even exchanged names. Little did we know what the future held. I certainly didn’t realize I had just met a visionary artist, who would become a significant co-conspirator and friend.
As time passed I kept running into to Steve, as the art scene is its own small town within the larger city. He was at parties, he was at openings, and when I joined the Artlink board, he was there too. Eventually I made the connection between Steve and the wondrous creations he produced: the televisors.
These were Steve’s signature body of work. He presented them as if they were historical relics: antique televisions, manufactured between 1889-1928. That time range happens to be before there was any practical television technology widely available, and definitely before there were any broadcasts being made. But the specificity of the dates effectively reinforced the idea the televisors were pioneering examples of luxury goods from a bygone age.
Steve knew enough about actual antiques to reference the styles of different countries and eras in his televisor designs. The amazing thing was he managed to pull off these creations using the most random bits and pieces he scavenged from thrift stores. The televisors were assembled from candlesticks and dog bowls and lamp fixtures, and just about any other scrap of wood and metal you can imagine. He arranged all the parts meticulously into an illusion of sophisticated industrial design. I used to joke they were only held together by gravity, but it’s pretty much true. All those fiddly pieces were just in place due to a series of Steve’s willful balancing acts.
Steve embedded monitors inside these elaborate cases, and showed his own video creations on them. This is where things took a darker turn, which added more complexity to the televisor experience. His video imagery was sometime soaring and celestial, but more often it was like Hieronymus Bosch fever dreams, It was as if the televisors were receiving broadcasts from Hades. Steve took the sequential photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, and re-animated them into a grotesque cast of chimeras wandering in some lost nocturnal plane.
Reanimated video stills
This video art culminated in his epic “Parade: The Absolute End of the World.” He worked on this video for 8 years. It literally has a cast of thousands of his wild beings marching past in formation.
I Love a Parade: Stills from Steve’s epic video art
We got to spend a lot of time with Steve and his art in the 5 years we were members of Deus ex Machina Gallery. Steve’s televisiors were always the stars of the show there. They were instantly accessible and fascinating for our patrons.
The televisors worked on so many different levels. They were sculptures. They were assemblage. They incorporated video and sound, They were conceptual in the best sense of the word, hinting at an entire alternative reality. And they were unapologetically beautiful.
An hypnotic televisor at Deus Ex Machina
We had so many special moments at that gallery. Steve like to set off smoke bombs in the street and play double dutch routines on the sidewalk with invisible jump ropes. Once Steve got his hands on a top hat, and serenaded my wife Michele Bledsoe with his rendition of “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka. The lyrics of that song applied very well to Steve: “We’ll begin with a spin/Traveling in the world of my creation/What we’ll see will defy explanation.”
Michele and Steve: Pure Imagination
Like the ornate videos he created, Steve was a complex hybrid of traits. He could be bawdy and bossy and boisterous. No matter what shenanigans he was up to, you just had to say, “That’s Steve,” and roll with it. His infectious, anarchist laughter was a clue to his driven nature; part Elmer Fudd, part Woody Woodpecker, coupled with wide eyed enthusiasm.
In his teacher mode, Steve was a master of the blunt but accurate critique. He was one of the few people that Michele felt like she truly learned something from. And to this day his advice drives my artistic production: he told me once you should always have a long term, a medium term, and a short term project going, all at the same time. This wisdom has become my own method.
As a gallery partner, he was committed and supportive. As a friend, he was giving and affectionate in his own particular Steve way. Our home is full of the thoughtful little gifts he came across during his Goodwill shopping. I shared his fascination with strange history; he was always bringing me topical books to read. He recognized Michele’s love of beautiful trinkets, so he brought her exotic objects of glass and brass.
Ultimately Steve was a worker, always so excited to push his art to new levels, and to share his own strange vision with the world. He loved to be involved in events and happenings.
I will always be glad, in one of our last exchanges through Facebook, I invited Steve over for dinner. He responded by sharing a trailer of a cool movie he was excited about: Embrace of the Serpent. We didn’t confirm the date, and I kept meaning to follow up. I thought we’d have plenty of time to work out the details.
We wanted to see Steve before his birthday. I was already mentally planning the menu. Only later did I learn that not too long after that message, he was gone. We did not find out until weeks later.
The New Times provided a thoughtful eulogy to Steve, that stuck one discordant note. It mentioned how his works made you want to question more. Although the idea that art equals questioning is a dominant piece of dogma in Postmodern art, it is a misreading of Steve’s accomplishments.
Steve did want not his viewers to question. He wanted them to experience wonder, which is not the same thing at all.
We loved Steve a lot and learned so much from him. We will treasure the time we got to spend with him.
Michele Bledsoe “Portrait of Steve Gompf” acrylic on canvas
Sunday May 20, 2018 7 pm
1204 East Roosevelt Street