Eric Yahnker is a satirical visual artist from the San Fernando Valley with a smart mouth, despite the regional accent. Sometimes his work mixes pop culture with politics, like the police pulling guns on Prince in the colored pencil portrait “Purple Lives Matter,” or his depiction of a classic pinup with Confederate flag tanlines for “Southern Burn.” Other times it’s strictly for the jokes, like his pastel “Boat in a Bong” series. Either way, his shit makes you laugh (or at least chuckle and shake your head), a reaction that’s far too rare when strolling the galleries.

This has already been a particularly busy year for Yahnker. His solo show Noah’s Yacht hadn’t even closed at the Zevitas Marcus gallery in Los Angeles when Steve Jobs’ Day Off, a completely different solo show, opened at The Hole in New York, where it will run until May 22.

We sent Yahnker some questions over email about his history and why he does what he does. He responded with a little bit of heavy art talk and a story about drawing pictures of his teachers banging each other. Here it goes!

 

When’s the first time you remember feeling like you were funny?

I probably thought I was funny long before I actually was—a well timed fart is usually all it takes for pre-adolescent boys to piss themselves—but humor was a huge part of my upbringing. You have to understand that comedy is almost a tribal prerequisite for a young Jew. If you can’t tell a decent joke by the time you’re out of short pants, your value to the household is somewhere between laundry detergent and pubic lice. Of course I think comedy is best served in my grandparents’ generation’s Eastern European/Brooklyn accents rather than my vocally fried, effeminate Southern Cali intonation.

When’s the first time you remember realizing that other people thought you were funny?

All I know is the same dickhead mouth that got me into loads of trouble also got me out of nearly all of it. I realized pretty early on it was my only real superpower; that and being the only kid at Jew camp with baby blue eyes.

What type of stuff did you draw or doodle when you were still in elementary school?

Whatever made the dopes around me laugh, which meant a variety of compositions featuring teachers blowing and sodomizing each other.

Were you into The Far Side when you were growing up?

I definitely enjoyed Gary Larson’s work, but didn’t quite comprehend just how effective and deceptively simple The Far Side was until much later. Throughout my life I’ve absorbed a Trivial Pursuit deck of visual information that I’m now able to call upon when needed. I just didn’t know until well after my thirtieth birthday exactly how I would ever be able to use this fountain of mostly useless knowledge. Guys like Gary Larson, Jerry Van Amerongen, Ronald Searle, Saul Steinberg, nearly the entire early crew at MAD Magazine, as well as a host of political cartoonists, such as Paul Conrad, were fortunately able to figure out how to succinctly link together the grand puzzle of life for the enjoyment of the illiterate masses and uppity intellectuals alike.

You went to college at USC for broadcast journalism, but were you still making art recreationally or taking classes for it at that time?

Art was purely recreational at that time. I had no use for it other than making dumb T-shirt designs for frat events often involving fresh produce in place of genitalia.

How long does it usually take to go from the concept for one of your pieces and actually finishing it?

It all depends. My typical process is to schedule a solo show at a particular space and then begin engineering how best to compose that space with the network of spittle and fucked up thoughts swirling in my head at that given time. I want all the works in a show to communicate in a very specific way, and for viewers to encounter the work in a predestined order. Once I’ve got a basic blueprint of what a show will ultimately look like, I’ll start with the works that have the highest degree of difficulty first and gradually work my way downhill. Massive colored pencil drawings with tons of detail obviously take the longest, whereas black and white charcoal works can take considerably less time.

Does the joke or idea ever change or undergo some kind of transformation as you are making the art?

All the time! The concepts within my work are completely fluid depending on context. So much can be psychologically altered by what you surround a particular work with, not to mention the ever changing tide of current events. I’ve found these shifts can range from subtle to completely jarring, and can either be completely fun or completely frustrating to screw with. The only real problem is this constant mental tectonic plate shifting can also provide an artist a perfect vehicle into self-obsessed madness—something artists rarely need extra help with.

Do you think most conceptual artists believe that the art that they make is funny?

Sure, I think there’s a certain vein of cheap seats black comedy, sarcasm, and “reveling in dopey suburban banality” that a fair amount of conceptual artists traditionally aim to exploit, but if that’s their only actual concept, then perhaps the designation is overused and outmoded. Personally, I consider myself a satirist, as well as a supremely fantastic and tender lover.

Eric Yahnker

Have you gotten any pushback from people who findthe humor in your art offensive? I’m thinking about pieces like “Selected Reading” or “Angel in the Outfield.”

Occasionally, yes. But, in all honesty, I’d be happy to get a lot more pushback. It would feed my intellectual desire to have a more robust external character arc or mount an Atticus Finch-like defense on my own behalf. It also never hurts to tempt the ever-fickle attention barometer to court a little controversy now and again, but I’ve never been interested in egregious ploys in exchange for eyeballs. If it happens organically, then I’m happy to be aboard. In any case, I feel fortunate that folks from many walks of life have embraced my work as a source of light more than darkness, even if it contains both in equal measure.

Your “Purple Lives Matter” piece has gotten some more attention following the death of Prince. Do you think it takes on a different significance following his death, or are people just stoked on anything involving him now?

For me, it definitely gives the piece greater significance, especially considering how much Prince’s personal activism has come to light since his death. I used him as a literal and metaphoric symbol for the Black Lives vs. All Lives Matter paradigm, and I’ve been told by a couple people that apparently knew him that he would have absolutely gotten a kick out of the piece, but I obviously can’t corroborate. Nevertheless, it would give me tremendous satisfaction to know that somehow he saw the piece in his final days.

How did it work out that you had back to back shows in Los Angeles and New York?

For a bunch of reasons I didn’t end up having a solo show in 2015, so the two shows just serendipitously got scheduled back to back with a few days of overlap. I wouldn’t have normally planned it that way, but I ended up being able to use the opportunity to basically make a single massive show with a 3,000 mile hallway in between. Both shows are tragicomic visual poems intentionally calibrated to the current neo-progressive sociopolitical zeitgeist, its deep passions and unintended pitfalls. While the L.A. show at Zevitas Marcus very much centered around issues of class and race, the New York show at The Hole focused more on age and gender.  

How did you decide what pieces would go into each one?

It was pretty obvious once I decided the tough questions I wanted to ask of each show. For the L.A. show, I wanted to hone in on a group of predominately white, middle and upper-middle class, neo-progressives caught in a clumsy limbo of wanting to help spearhead the mounting battle for sweeping social reform, while desperately trying to shed the stigma of their own perceived privilege and ancestral ties to cringeworthy conduct—a complex negotiation that often leads to awkward bouts of overcompensation and inadvertent ignorance and discrimination. For the New York show, I wanted to look more at the past, present, and future of masculine/feminine archetypes and American ambition as an uber-conscious millennial population rapidly shifting toward Euro-style socialism and gender fluidity/neutrality comes of voting age.

How intense was it getting both ready?

It was incredibly intense for nearly a year. But constant labor suits me, keeps me out of the gangs and off the drugs.