Dark, Comedic Suicide

Steve Gompf and Jeff Falk work together in video and live performance, creating something that's 'not a Cathy cartoon'

The Ritual of Mr. Pain came about by accident.

Steve Gompf's grainy black-and-white video of a live performance by Jeff Falk features a guy onstage in a dark suit with a stocking-like mask over his head. In his hands is a stuffed toy he holds out in front of him, making it prance at arm's length--as you would a child in a stinky diaper, conveying that you'd rather not be involved in the whole affair.

Images float around the video, fireworks a-flashing. It's surreal and angle-defying and tortured and innocent.

"The suit I'm wearing is the one I wore at my wedding," Jeff Falk says. "My wife and I were well into adulthood when we married. We did the wedding thing for everyone else. So it made sense to wear the suit during this performance," explains the Phoenix writer and performance artist.

"Mr. Pain is a way to kind of vomit it all up. He's rooted in my bad adolescence."

Falk's performances find their way into Gompf's animated videos in a variety of ways. They've collaborated for more than a decade (Mr. Pain's been around about that long, too, admits the 51-year-old Falk.) Both artists have worked the underbelly of performance. Gompf often accompanies music with live video projection; Falk monologs on stage.

Gompf's darkly surreal computer animations have been shown at the Tucson Museum of Art, ASU Museum of Art and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin. Falk's creations have appeared at the annual New Genre Festival in Tulsa, the Phoenix Art Museum and the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe. Both artists are involved in the downtown arts scene in Phoenix

Gompf teaches graphic design and animation at ASU. But Jeff Falk's day job, though unremarkable on the surface, has a direct influence on his work. Falk sits all day behind a desk in the surgical unit of a Phoenix hospital.

On stage, the suited and stocking-head Mr. Pain casts an odd visage--a banker wearing a condom in lieu of a ski mask. Falk's aware of the history of masks in theater, something actors use to completely transform themselves. For Falk, it's a continuation of Halloween, his favorite holiday.

"It's a buffer between me and the audience. People come up to me afterwards and say that I scared the hell out of them. You realize you've got an amulet or a talisman and you can suspend everything."

Navigating Mr. Pain from the stage onto the screen (and now, incorporating video projections into performances) was a mystifying feat, says Falk.

"Steve and I did the video out at a friend's property in Apache Junction. It was 110 degrees. The suit, as you can imagine, was soaked through with sweat. So I asked Steve, 'Where we going with this?' And he says, 'We're just doing it.'"

That's the kernel of their collaborations.

Gompf says it was probably one of the last videos they did with the toy camera. He's fond of filming low-tech, using $39 Tyco toy cameras. He explains the Mr. Pain video is more nonverbal compared with others he and Falk have worked on.

"For the audience, we just put it out there; it's their job to figure it out. My job is to put it together and make them feel, to affect someone."

And what kind of pain reliever would Mr. Pain take? Falk grins. "He wouldn't take any. He's not a masochist. But he thinks he is. On stage, he lights a cigarette or tries to eat, but because of the mask, he's incapable of doing these simple things. But that's a good question to ask, and it adds to who he is for me."

Falk rationalizes doing absurd things in front of an audience (and critics' incredulity) as just a reflection of the crazy world.

"You do it without good sense. But the audience's response is instant. It's either gratification or rejection. Maybe I'm self-centered, but I feel happy doing it. I'm just a hambone."

He adds that up on stage, the microphone is a megaphone for his spirit. As for Gompf, his art-making tool of choice is the machine. He's drawn to found footage that he's free to reconfigure, like his 50-minute autopsy video. He's always aware of the screen.

"I sleep with my TV on. One night I must have rolled over on the remote and I woke up to this bizarre angel cartoon on the religion channel. It was around 5:30 on a Saturday morning. So I stuck in a tape and began recording.

"Can you imagine who's awake to see this? The narration was so off the wall, something like, 'I've got to go now and do the work of the Lord.' I had fun reordering the lines and images," Gompf says of his video reincarnation.

Gompf also breeds other kinds of mockery, like his Televisor Museum International (www.teleseum.org), a Web site dedicated to all things televised between 1884 and 1928--an archive of apocryphal ephemera, akin to the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

A short interview with the 'director' just showed up on public radio here in Phoenix.

"Really the site is a collection of all the TVs I've made," he says of his sculptural, 3-D framed videos he's exhibited over the years.

Saturday's performance promises to be much the same. Falk's contribution includes Mr. Pain, but also a piece about a neighbor who came down to his apartment in the middle of the night to reveal she'd just slit her wrists.

"It was pretty intense," remembers Falk. The piece takes his written narrative and weds that with sounds while he manipulates cardboard puppets on sticks. "Somehow the story just called for this approach."

There'll be Gompf's autopsy piece, a Muybridge-angels blend and found footage of a two-headed fetus.

"Not all my angels are nice. I don't know really where they come from," admits Gompf.

Falk adds, "My work with Steve is dark, comedic suicide. We're not dark beings. But we're not a Cathy cartoon or a Thomas Kinkade painting, either."

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