I went to interview artist Eric Yahnker at his home in L.A. on a very unpredictable day. Our conversation flowed and it was as erratic as the weather. We talked about everything that you could possibly imagine. He made me laugh until I almost cried. I left his place with the confirmation that comedy should be taken very seriously. Here is the edited version.
(2012,The Good Samaritan By Eric Yahnker courtesy of Ambach & Rice)
Redia: How long have you been living in this home? You said you just bought this place recently with your girlfriend right?
Eric:We’ve been living here for six months.
It actually does not look like you just been here for a short period of time. You guys have definitely moved in.
Yeah everyone says that, but it’s really only been 6 months. We’ve been together for 15 years and have accumulated 15 years worth of crap. I guess previously we stored all this stuff in closets, corners, garages, and our collective studios. It finally has a place to come home to. But now my studio is pretty empty. All the cool shit came here.
So did you have to get rid of a bunch of stuff?
It doesn’t look like we got rid of that much stuff, but you would be surprised how much we actually purged. Oprah said it would be therapeutic.
You have a mish mash of unique treasures in your home. Where do you normally find these treasures?
You can find a lot of merchandise on street corners in L.A. Weird pedestals for example. People can just leave their stuff outdoors for long periods of time because it doesn’t rain that often, so things don’t deteriorate so quickly.
As a kid my parents would put me in front of a television all the time and the TV would act as my babysitter. I think I relate to your work because I am also enamored with popular culture. I guess that experience paved the way for me. It influences my work and how I relate to people today. When I look at your art it is definitely reflective of pop culture driven with humor and politics. I feel sometimes your work is like a joke with a really well executed punchline.
I try to ring out a soaking rag of pop culture, history, philosophy, academicism, with all the other swill and spittle floating in my brain to condense it down to its simplest form. I’m looking for ‘comedic essence.’ I equate my work to the dramatic actor cast in a slapstick role. For example, before ‘Airplane,’ Leslie Nielsen was known as a dramatic actor. But, he took on this comedic role as if his life depended on it, the same way he would play a dramatic role, which made it way funnier. Similarly, part of the process for me is that I take comedy very seriously.
I saw an interview with you where you talk about Rodney Dangerfield and other comedians like him as being the philosophers of our time. Can you elaborate more on what you meant by this?
Well, I don’t know if I truly believe these guys are the philosophers of our time, but I can’t think of anyone else who is either. Truthfully, I don’t like watching much contemporary stand-up, because maybe I envision myself up there on stage. I actually get nerve wracked watching it sometimes. I just kind of hate an atmosphere where a comedian is pandering for laughs. I think the old school guys made it feel more like a real craft, whereas today there seems to be a real slant toward absurdity for absurdity sake, and lame observations that go nowhere.
Well it’s really uncomfortable to watch especially when it’s not good…
Yeah, it’s the same reason why I can’t stand strip clubs. I’m not into feigned attraction. I want to know this babe grinding on my lap is really into me, and not because I’m chucking down lettuce. Mostly, stand-up feels really cringe-worthy for me, so when someone’s able to nail it, I totally respect that. I guess the comics I really identify with are more my grandfather’s comics.
Who are you relating to?
Mostly Jewish comedians like Dangerfield, Mel Brooks, Don Rickles, Jonathan Winters, The Three Stooges,The Marx Brothers. A brand of humor which is an extension of vaudeville. It’s not all centered around cheap jokes laced with profanity and blatant sexuality, which I’m totally fine with and there’s definitely a place for, but there’s so many funny things out there in the world, I just prefer to challenge myself to find a way to avoid aiming exclusively for the cheap seats.
I think it’s easy to do a cheap joke but when a joke involves wit, great delivery and makes your audience laugh- that to me is talent! Talking about Mel Brooks, i just watched Spaceballs again recently and it’s so funny…
Yes, it’s way better then Star Wars!(laughs) That type of spoof is comparable to my work because there is a sense of timelessness about the way it was made while still using contemporary pop culture references to create it. In the same way a painter uses color or a designer uses composition, I am using this circular comedic composition where hopefully the viewers eye is led around a piece or an entire show to this infinite, kinetic comedic potential. At the same time, I can’t help but relate to our current zeitgeist, and the political atmosphere we all live in. Almost everything I do is very aware in that way.
On the surface it seems you are just taking the piss-which I do believe is part of your work anyways-however, when you truly dissect it, you understand that it digs deeper into the relevant subject matters that you are exposing.
Well it has to be or else I don’t do it. So many ideas get trashed. Brainstorming takes a good deal of time. Early in my career I started producing labor-intensive sculptures. A 6-second idea turned into a 6-month project. Even though a drawing only takes up to a few weeks to finish, it’s still a hell of a commitment no matter what, so I don’t want to start until I know exactly what I’m doing. I’m not generally just producing one-off pieces that end up on a single wall in a group show. More often, I’m creating an overall atmosphere and environment for a solo show. I like to create fluidity where every piece plays off one another, but that has to be planned well in advance. When someone gives me a critique saying my work isn’t cohesive, I have to say it’s because their thinking is limited. Then I’ll go sulk for an hour and eat tapioca pudding.
Your solo show at The Hole called ‘Virgin Birth N’ Turf’ in New York was very cohesive. I really liked the install with the 21 mesh g-strings in red, white and blue. How you displayed them reminded me of flags that you see at car dealership or at a Formula One race.
Yeah, ‘G-String Theory’ is about what really motivates the universe–a true ‘theory of everything’–outside of quantum physics. I thought it was either going to look really dumb, and people would be like, ‘why are these damn panties in my eyeline?’ or it was going to really help balance this enormous space. It kind of had the effect of looking like the ghost-hull of a ship or maybe the rib cage of a whale at the Natural History Museum. I saw a grown man chew on one of the G-strings at my opening like it was Bubble Gum…fucking weirdo.
I noticed that the portrait you drew of Whitney Houston called ‘Exhale’ was taken from the last paparazzi shot that was documented of her before she died.
I made Exhale for a few reasons beyond the word itself relating so closely to death, and her hit movie and song ‘Waiting To Exhale.’ The piece is actually part of a diptych. On the other side of Exhale, is another drawing, Inhale, which uses Bill Clinton’s image playing the sax. It’s concrete poetry and iconography. Just as Whitney and the word ‘exhale’ are inextricably linked–at least for my generation–so to is Bill Clinton and the word ‘inhale.’ How weird is it to have a word conjure up the image of a person, or conversely, a human conjure a word? I love that kind of existential attachment.
I think the irony with ‘Waiting to Exhale’ is that movie was made for the general public who also crowned Whitney Houston as America’s sweetheart, but in reality she was quite trashy and had a lot of issues that were hidden for sometime like a drugs problem, and an abusive relationship. Living in L.A. you are surrounded around Hollywood types that have these sort of heavy problems. Is your work influenced by the city that you live in?
I get that a lot. It’s not something I’m focused on, but you know it’s like Monet going into his garden to find inspiration. I guess Hollywood, to some degree, is what I see when I go outside looking for inspiration.
Sometimes the subject in your work are things that friends bring up in groups while drinking or conversing. It’s a ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if dot dot dot’ type of idea .’ You say it once, and dispose the idea almost immediately after a few laughs. For example…’Wouldn’t it be funny to draw James Brown in his coffin holding a microphone?’ This is funny ideas that come up with friends sometimes.(Laughing)
(Laughing)…And you call the piece ‘Hit it and quit it’.
Having the title complete the piece is also the icing on top when it comes to your work. For this issue we are covering a Vancouver artist named Brad Phillips. His paintings and drawings have similar subject matters to yours – the witticism is as clever as the titles. For example, he has a picture frame turned towards the wall. You don’t see the picture inside the frame but you only see the back of the frame with its stand. Brad named it “Deadbeat Dad’. This piece to me is delivered so simply, but with so many emotional questions and attachments.
Yes, sometimes you have this reliance on your audience to have a deep connection with your work. Of course, I historically have trouble with any hint of sentimentality. In my relationship with Ali, I’ve often said that she’s the heart of the operation and I guess that makes me the brains by default. I’m pretty convinced my heart is just an extra set of testicles waiting to drop, or something. I’m don’t know how to be emotional about the shit happening in the world. I guess it’s my hobby to turn horror to satire.
Was drawing something that came naturally to you?
I think so, yes. I guess I always got credit for being a good artist but no one ever showed me how to pursue it as a career. You need to have certain mentorship around in order to make that mental leap. Growing up I didn’t know art school existed. I was a totally different dude back then. After high school I went to USC to study journalism and joined a fraternity. When I made the transition from journalism to animation, that was my first real introduction with any form of art. But actually coming to terms with the fact I was an artist was to some degree like coming out of the closet.
You were in a fraternity!? I couldn’t even imagine as I look at you standing here in front of me .That part of your life is so far removed from your body of work.
I can’t really say I have any lasting friendships from that time but it was a hilariously naked, fun time.
Well fraternities like to party in a jock type of manner which really is a no-brainer for sure. (Laughing)
Exactly! I don’t even know if I could even have similar conversations now like the one’s I had back then. I mean, I could still play Strip Jenga and drink candle wax till I puke or whatever, but, please let’s not talk politics! The minute I became politically aware is the minute I started to retroactively become shocked by even my own former actions. Some things don’t necessarily register as dog whistles or relate to any particular political stripe until you choose to turn on the lights and watch the roaches scatter rather than pretend they’re not there. As I started coming to terms with my own ideals, I started having a lot more disagreements with people I could no longer ignore. Becoming an artist was not the trigger which made me politically aware. I became politically aware, then I became an artist. Politics aside, I’ll still run through a Bob’s Big Boy with a fancy satin bow around my dong if it comes right down to it.
Even in your younger years when you did a more conventional route of going to university and such, I have a sense you have always had a different visual approach to life, you just didn’t know how to project it yet. I think most people test out the waters to understand that they have more to offer.
Well, first of all, most people will wear which ever skin gets them drunk and laid most often. You say to yourself, “Where the hell else is this gonna happen? I’d have to slice open that Maroon 5 dude and wear his skin around to ever get this type of action. If this is where the horniest babes are, this is where I’m at!” (laughing) I just followed the center of the road during that time in my life, but these sorts of experiences are part of it all.
Maybe I’m nuts, but the crazy thing I’ve discovered about the art world is that it’s not necessarily so cool to be so blatantly heterosexual. I am sort of a man’s man, you know, and I think my work proudly wears its schvantz on its sleeve. Hopefully people are starting to be more cool with that and my audience can get a bit broader.
At least your audience cannot deny the natural talent you have when looking at your large scale drawings in person.
Oh yeah, did you get a chance to see my show in New York?
Yeah, we actually just stumbled upon your solo show at The Hole on our last visit to New York for our magazine. Jennilee and I were walking to the subway and saw the Hole Gallery and walked in. It was one of the galleries we hadn’t had the chance to go to yet but we did hear that there was a great show on and we were meaning to check it out. We did not know anything about you and your body of work at all prior to walking in. We walked out being instant fans. It was so cohesive and visually appealing. Our instant reaction was “Who is this guy and how come he is not already on our radar?.” Hense, my cold email to you that I did after my return to Vancouver proposing if we could interview you for our next issue. Now I am here sitting in your home in Los Angeles chatting with you today. Seeing your work gave me a sense of relief that their is some brilliant work waiting for me to discover for myself. Touching on that topic, did you watch the documentary yet called ‘Searching for Sugarman’?
I haven’t, but everyone tells me to watch it.
It’s great. It’s kind of along that idea of personal discovery. The documentary is almost mythical as it’s before the big advancements of cyberspace where you actually still use maps to find someone rather then searching Google. Discovering an extraordinary talent with a remarkable story that you haven’t heard before is golden. I was truly touched by the Rodriguez story.
I know. Like, sometimes I wish I’d never heard Marvin Gaye’s ‘Hear, My Dear’ album before so I could rediscover it for the first time all over again. To be able to listen to that album again where it evokes the same feeling and magic when I first heard it would be unreal. Like, God, what a heartbreaking, unbelievable album! Now that album is a bit played out for me because I over used it. Maybe it’s time to bust it out again.
I know you touch social media in your work often. How has it affected your work?
Well it’s two-fold. Without it, I would not be where I am. In the beginning, galleries weren’t too interested in what I was doing. I needed to build a bit of critical mass on my own before anyone started sniffing around. So without putting my work out there on the net, things likely wouldn’t have happened. That being said, I totally understand the idea about sacredness and building mystique.
Well that is what I am kind of saying when I watched ‘Searching for Sugarman’. Finding the artist Rodriguez in that documentary was like discovering the last unicorn or something. But yeah, social media is also great to get your work out universally and our online mag has experienced the results. There is something missing about it though that makes me feel so old school. For example, remember when you first heard a band like Nirvana for the first time and being able to physically pass the music on from friend to friend? It felt more special because you went the extra mile to share it, and it builds comradery with those you enjoyed it with. Now the new generation doesn’t even have to use their brain and absorb the heart of the topic because you can instantly find info online and blog it. Then at the end of the day the content is pushed to the bottom of the blog and considered old news.
Right. When someone sees a jpeg of my work on a blog, they are certainly not getting the full experience. They don’t know the size and detail of the work. Maybe they think it’s the size of a postage stamp. Part of the nature of my art that I want to impart is the scale, which also unlocks some of its magic. You don’t actually realize the impact until you are standing in front of it and walking through a 3-room show like I just did for The Hole. You get to really experience this long-form, comedic poetry I’ve set up to experience in a very precise way.
For the most part, I see my work as words rather than images. It’s kind of like the film ‘A Beautiful Mind’ except instead of seeing super brainy shit, like mathematics as colors on a spectrum, I see dumb jokes or word associations. I’m not a set-up, punch line, rimshot type of comedian. I respond to things depending on my environment…obviously the drunker I get, or the more boobies that are lying around, the more loose I get. It’s kind of like there are these wordplay flash cards flying through my mind constantly waiting to be snatched. Or, more like a slot machine, where you pull the lever and whatever it lands on, you just shamelessly blurt out. Sometimes you hit the jackpot, and sometimes you lose your quarter, but you never stop playing.
When I researched your work it crossed my mind that maybe you were hyperactive with a great imagination. You have produced so much work during your career as an artist. The large scale photos with graphite and colored pencils are so detailed and refined. Experiencing them in person made me dumfounded. Is that what you generally use as your mediums to create your work?
Yes sharp and pointy. There has been always something natural about drawing for me. It’s what impressed me when I was young…”Oh that person can draw his ass-that’s really cool!’ …I never really considered painting.
Didn’t you work for South Park during your animation days?
The first job I had in animation was during my second year at CalArts. I storyboarded the film ‘Bigger Longer & Uncut’ for them in ’98.
Did you pitch ideas all day?
Storyboarding is essentially making the written word visual, which is what I do in my head all day long anyways. At times, we were encouraged to go ‘further’ than the script and see if we couldn’t come up with something even racier, which I didn’t realize at the time was so they had extra footage to use as sacrificial lamb’s for the ratings board in order to keep other difficult scenes they wanted to keep from being censored. I learned a ton on that job.
Ultimately, the thing I got really interested in while in journalism school was political cartooning. One of my earliest heroes was L.A. Times Pulitzer prize winning cartoonist Paul Conrad. He was the first artist that I can say I idolized. Political cartooning is this idea where you are delivering the news of the day to the illiterate masses, while subtly, or sometimes not so subtly, interjecting opinion through a series of carefully crafted metaphors, which requires the artist to have a fountain of preexisting, accumulated knowledge. I have a lot of things at my disposable. Essentially, I know a little about a whole lot of things! It’s a Cliffs Notes brand of awareness. You need to recall a data and delve deep into topics by connecting multiple dots. To make the quintessential ‘picture worth a thousand words,’ a political cartoonist must pull from history, religion, know the bible forwards and backwards, use philosophy, science or whatever, and dictate today’s news in a succinct, thought-provoking, and hopefully entertaining way by a 4pm daily deadline. I basically do that now, but without the 4pm deadline. Sometimes I would love to have that kind of pressure and instant gratification though. Also you’re dealing with ideas in the moment that may not be so timeless. But artist’s like Paul Conrad’s cartoons often remain relevant years later because they are built on broader themes and ideas. Hopefully I’ll be able to say the same about my own output.
I also like how time can eradicate things and wash it away. I really think time will do some cool things with my work. You can never truly predict. Time can continue to redefine a piece. For instance, if you used Arnold Schwarzenegger back in the ’80s, you couldn’t possibly have imagined all the events that have happened since. You have to be cautious using certain characters, because they are still actively defining their legacy.
Have you ever met any characters that you have drawn?
I don’t know. It’s possible, but I’m not generally star struck. I think the only celebrities I would be star struck by is basketball stars like Kobe Bryant and Magic Jackson. They’re all just human beings.
I love the piece that you called ‘Tiger Tail’. I think that drawing is just spot on. You don’t have to say what you are trying to convey with that piece. Tiger Woods obviously wasn’t careful about his actions as a public figure. When that whole thing unraveled it was like watching a slow moving car crash, however you couldn’t help but stay tuned to the entertainment. I am sure these hot topics happen in normal society but these stars struggles are more glamorized because they are in the public eye compared to the average Joe. Even with Whitney Houston and how all the series of events connected …people enjoy watching a star fall off their pedestal. Do you agree that your work touches upon the many layers of social media involving public loyalty, the spotlight and the fall from grace?
Well, so much of that show, Virgin Birth n’ Turf, is about that. I mean, overall it was more centered on the notion if you believe the biblical ‘virgin birth’ is non-fiction, I’ll bet you a creationist dollar you probably reside in a red state. Or conversely, if you see it as a parable or dismiss it entirely, you’re likely in a blue state.
But, as for using Lebron, Whitney Houston, or Tiger Woods, they are merely a microcosm of what Obama is dealing with. For instance, the Talcum X piece is about multiplication and division. I remember reading an article in The Atlantic which posited the first African American anything, let alone U.S. president, has to be ‘half as black and twice as good’ in order to gain enough acceptance to govern the whole. Tiger Woods is very much the same way. To be a champion in a traditionally non-diverse sport, he has been held to a way higher professional and moral standard than his peers, partly due to his own mythologizing strategy of claiming utter perfection, and partly due to the powers that be perpetuating it.
How was Art Basel Miami for you?
It’s definitely great for sales. Art fairs are by nature commerce driven, but your work is kind of in this space you would never have imagined ever putting it.
I had made this solo show for The Armory in early 2012, where I tried to make a very enveloping environment. The idea being if you stepped into this booth, maybe for just a brief moment you could pretend you weren’t at this hifalutin Turkish market. But that being said, there’s really nothing you can do about it. I had a very specific concept for that show, which looked at the evolution of the G.O.P., from the party started by anti-slavery activists and Lincoln, to pro-deregulation capitalist stalwarts like Goldwater and Reagan, and its current downward spiral toward irrelevance stemming from a variety of social issues. I’m sure very few folks plowing through the Armory got or even wanted to receive that context, and I guess it really doesn’t matter if visitors take the shallow end or deep end of the ideas I was trying to channel. The work is there to be had at the viewers discretion.
What does your mom and dad think about you as an artist? Do you think they get it?
Well, I think my family has a great sense of humor. I think they get it in the way that they get me. It definitely wouldn’t have been their first career choice for me. But to be fair, when I started to progress in it they became very proud. Originally it was tough to get support and I spent a lot of years not really talking about it with them. With all youthful rebellion, it’s like if your parents dig the clothes you’re wearing, you should probably change!(laughing)
Were they always supportive of your creatively?
Yes. Well, support and mentorship are two different things. Your parents can only take you so far.
Are you parents artists?
No, but there was definitely an art streak that ran through my family which unfortunately no one ever did anything with. If anything, there were a few hobbyists. The closest thing I’d have to mentorship was probably my grandfather who kind of set a comedic tone and certainly introduced me to a brand of humor I identified with. I really looked up to him, and was lucky enough to have him around through my late teens. He was the guy you wanted to make proud.
My grandmother wanted to go to art school, but was told by her mother women didn’t go to school. I feel she went to the grave with a lot of sadness because of it. In a big way, I felt like I had to pioneer for my own family. Screw this! One of us was going to figure out how to make this work! Now, some of my younger cousins have gone into creative fields, which has been pretty cool to see.
I saw your install with the Foreigner records that you did for ‘Virgin Birth n Turf’. I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be a sculpture.
Yes, ‘Foreigner Corner’. I don’t know if you noticed within the pile of records there is also a Cat Stevens album there titled Foreigner.
No actually I didn’t.
So, I put an actual foreigner within the Foreigner Corner! That piece is about Social Identity Theory, and how people’s sense of self is related to whom they associate, especially early in life. Obviously a foreigner never forgets he’s a foreigner, nor will anyone let him, and it can create a condition of inferiority or empowerment, depending on a lot of factors. As for Cat Stevens, he blew off his whole former rock star life to become Yusuf Islam, although I think he’s dipped back into his Cat Steven’s role now and again for a paycheck.
(Lauging)…that’s pretty funny. I love Cat Stevens. Him changing his name was shocking for his fans considering he was so popular when he changed it.
Obviously I can’t possibly understand what it’s like to be that wildly famous and successful. But, as you start getting even a little bit of fame and success, I think you can start to understand how someone like Cat Stevens could come to a place where he’d want to shun all of it so dramatically. On a much, much smaller scale, there are some things that have come into my life due to my work which can be a little disconcerting. I mean, I don’t necessarily want to know the people who can actually afford my work, and what they do for a living to afford it. If it weren’t for these transactions, in most cases, these are people I would never know or have access to, or perhaps even want to have access to. That’s not to say I haven’t met some truly great people, but I’m still so new to this, maybe I’m a bit resistant in a reactionary way. I’m hyper aware of not wanting to lose myself when I probably don’t have to be.
Well maybe that is why people just jump off because they can’t handle the pressure.
Or they are on shit-ton of drugs…(laughing)
Yes, and there is also the enablers. I always think about Michael Jackson and the situations that lead up to his death.
Part of it was him making his own bed. As my former teacher, Mr. Nosworthy used to say,”it’s like toenails…you grew ’em, you chew ’em!”. In M.J.’s case, he wanted to build this fucked up mythology around himself…having the hyperbaric chamber and such. He perpetuated certain stories while it worked toward his legend, but, when parents of young children started accusing him of horrible things, all the public had to draw on is the crazy narrative he helped perpetuate through the years.
Yeah it’s pretty crazy. I was a really big Michael Jackson fan growing up.
You too! I still am! I mean he is so much a part of me. I named my penis Captain Eo.
I actually don’t know if I believe he did those things to kids. I have a theory on MJ but it is just a theory. Obviously Michael Jackson was a misunderstood genius and he was special in this Peter Pan type of way where he was a boy on the inside and maybe he was even a-sexual. I think people took advantage of his wealth and his kindness. I mean, come on… what parent in their right mind, knowing their was previous charges already made against him let their kid stay over at Neverland?
Parents that are equally loving and litigious.
Do your parents have any of your art up in their home?
Well, I gave them a couple things I’ll forever regret. I gave them these large pieces I did before my work matured and you know how those things go. And of course they have them prominently displayed in their home and I’m like fuck!(laughs)
Yeah, it’s like seeing a high school picture of yourself when you go to your parents house.
You worked on Seinfeld too for their bonus feature called Seinimation which is awesome because I use to watch that show religiously. How did that even happen for you? I actually didn’t realize until I was touching up your interview questions and I looked on your Wikipedia profile that you had done the cartoons for Seinfeld that is included in the box sets that I own.
Yeah, it’s pretty funny. I played volleyball with this guy who at the time was a director on ‘Family Guy’ and now is the co-creator of ‘Phineas and Ferb’ which I guess is the number one kids show right now. Anyway, as CGI was becoming more and more the standard, I knew I didn’t get into animation to be sitting in front of a computer. I wanted to draw! I felt the only way I could do that was to work on animated commercials, where there was still some demand for traditional, hand-drawn animation. Anyway, this director asked me if I’d be interested in this gig for Seinfeld he didn’t have the time to take on. When they did eventually call me for the gig, I added an extra zero to the budget, and then they said, “Sure.” I was like, “Holy fuck!”
Major loop hole! That was like finding the golden key telling you to come on in…
Totally.That was the easiest job I have ever done in my life with the highest pay. And I thought if I get that type of lottery ticket, I have to ensure I do something good with it because I wasn’t having fun making commercials. I saw the guys who were doing the grind in directing commercials, and didn’t see anyone that was super stoked, even with all the dedicated years that they had put in. At that time I was actually starting to pitch shows to studios as well. This was before adult swim or animation cable channels specifically targeted to a more adult audience. There was The Simpson’s, South Park, and the memory of the brilliant Ren & Stimpy, but since it was right after 9/11, no one wanted to even look at a pitch which could potentially offend. Through the years, I tried multiple things to see if I could find a good fit for my sensibilities and odd talents. When I started to discover art, I was sort of simultaneously crippled by this sense that if I’m gonna be an artist I had better find a way to be seminal right off the bat, especially coming from an animation background. So, I started making these nutty sculptures, but that wasn’t completely fulfilling either. After that is when it came full circle. I started bringing humor and drawing back to my work, and it made me feel like myself again. That whole time was my art school, I guess. I read a bunch of art theory and monographs to nurture my exploration. When you’re not coming from an MFA program, I think you tend to over-learn to compensate.
No matter what I can’t be anything but me. Sometimes I’ll blow people’s hair back, or say the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong crowd, but if I’m not being me, I’m the first in line to kick myself square in the nuts.
(2010, Cheese Slice On Garland by Eric Yahnker courtesy of Ambach & Rice)
As a child did you have drawing books?
Drawing for me was like drawing in the margins of my homework. I mean, Spiderman and dumb caricatures of my teachers sucking each other off were some of my first art I wasn’t embarrassed to share. Whatever made people laugh.
Maybe I’m back to where I was as a kid. I got a bit more serious as a teen, although maybe people remember it differently than I do. I was President of my high school. I was very involved in activities. I played sports…all that shit.
There is this one incident I remember from my senior year when I ran for student body president and my best friend growing up decided to run against me. I never had a friend like that. Through elementary and middle school, people sort of saw us as the same person–two peas in a pod, but as high school and puberty was thrust upon us we sort of drifted apart and then he ran against me out of nowhere. I was like…”What the hell?!” It definitely hurt, but when I won, I remember a girl who was one of his main supporters said to me, “The only reason anyone voted for you is because you can draw and you’re funny!” Yep, that pretty much sums it up for me.
You should have taken that as a compliment.
I did. Oh, I should clarify, the exact line was, “The only reason anyone voted for you is because you can draw, you’re funny, and you told everyone you’d bring back the Pajama Dance!”(laughing)
(2007, You Want The Best You Got The Best by Eric Yahnker courtesy of Ambach & Rice)
What is ‘The Pajama Dance’?
They put a stop to ‘The Pajama Dance’ because too many girls showed up in lingerie. (laughing) My main campaign issue was to bring back the pajama dance!
Of course the adults had issues with it. It was a way for teenage girls to express their inner slut!(laughing)
What was the first work you made when you decided to start drawing as an extension of being an artist?
The first ‘art piece’ I ever made was in August 2004, when I started pulling all the threads out of a Gap shirt, leaving only the pinstripe, Analogous to the Fall of That One Empire (Gap Shirt). I did labor-intensive sculptures pretty much exclusively for a few years. The first drawings I did came around 2007. Well, this is one of them. (pointing to a graphite drawing framed on his wall). You Want The Best, You Got The Best, which depicts all four members of the 70’s rock band Kiss in a single, multi-dimensional head. I keep this one because it was one of the first.
When I left animation to pursue art, I holed myself up from the public for literally four years–not that anyone cared. All I wanted to focus on was figuring out my process in art and to find my passion before the money ran out.
Finally, my girlfriend thought my hermit kick had gone on long enough. She was like,” Don’t you think it’s time to maybe show this work?” Although I don’t think she said it quite that gently.
I love Raymond Pettibon and I see similarities in your work and both of you are also Californian artists. A lot of your work touches on music and irony which I see a lot of in his work too. Can you tell me about the group show that you were both in and how it came together?
My dealer Charlie put that show together. Having a great dealer is like having a great marriage. Communication is very important for me. Charlie has been with me from the beginning. He was the second guy to ever buy my work–the first to actually pay for it. When my work was published in’ New American Paintings’ in late 2007, I got a few curiosity calls because the only text I had to accompany my work was just my phone number. He was one of the people that reached out.
How did you end up showing your work for the magazine?
I saw the magazine at Barnes and Nobles and just submitted my work. I didn’t really have too many options at the time. A lot of great things came from that. Actually, a group of my friends I still hang out with today I met because they called me after seeing my work in New American Paintings back in ’07. They were like, ” Who is this dude making these fucked up drawings with no resume and just a phone number, and what’s his fucking problem anyway?”
At that time Charlie’s gallery was in Seattle, and I was reluctant to have a show there because like a lame douchebag, I thought I needed to have a show in L.A. or New York or no one would actually see it. But, fortunately he was incredibly persistent and patient with me. I think we spoke nearly every week for a couple years, and eventually we became friends. I finally had my show, Naughty Teens/Garbanzo Beans with his gallery in mid-2009, after having some pretty miserable experiences with other galleries in L.A and New York, and the rest is history.
These days any show can be an international show because of the internet. It’s so cool to have received fan mail from all seven continents. Obviously I wish everyone could see my shows in the flesh, but I’d rather people see it online than not at all.
Was there a pinnacle point in your career where all of a sudden it started to shift?
Art Basel Miami this year was really great for me. I had an intense experience literally a week ago and people are starting to come out of the wood work quite a bit now. It’s been a nice, slow progression where every year I feel like I sort of move the needle a bit more, without spiking too hard one way or the other.
Other than that, I had a show in January 2011 in Chinatown in L.A. and I didn’t know what to expect as it was just a satellite gallery Charlie and I took over while he was thinking about making the transition to L.A. Anyway, the opening night ended up being mobbed, and I realized there was a pretty strong interest level in L.A. for my work I didn’t quite realize. It built confidence and reassurance. I mean, I’ve always felt with any creative field there’s this roving spotlight, and if you stay in the game long enough eventually the spotlight will shone on you. Staying in the spotlight is a whole other matter.
I think it’s about authenticity too. I’ve always said I wanted people to walk into my show and feel like they were meeting me, whether I was there or not.
I also think it’s good to have had the experiences of hustling and working different fucked up jobs to make ends meet, so you could come home and work even harder toward the dream job. I have worked in contexts so far removed from art, I think it gives me a weird sort of advantage. I mean, I was a top salesman in the Men’s Furnishing’s Department at Nordstrom for years, which helped put me through college. One year, I was actually in the top 2 percent nationally in sales.
(2008, Swastika Guacstika/ 2008, Swastika Swanstika/ 2008, Swastika Cusha Squashtika/ 2008, Swastika Michelle Kwanstika- Selected work by Eric Yahnker courtesy of Ambach & Rice)
You are an over-achiever. I think its better to create a high standard for yourself even if you haven’t attained what your goal is.
Yes, I am an over-achiever, and proud of it. But, sometimes having that standard manifests itself in ways that it shouldn’t and you can lose touch with reality. In a case like Nordstrom, I didn’t necessarily want to make huge sales numbers for the money, but more because I despised some of my co-workers so much, I wanted to crush their fucking spirit! I’m not really that ugly, angry guy anymore, but I know he lurks if put in the wrong situation.
Also, over-achieving means I stupidly spend nearly all my waking hours working. I know a lot of artists use assistants, but I don’t even know what I’d have an assistant do! I would probably just end up with more work, because I’d be so picky I’d end up re-doing everything the assistant did. Maybe one day I’ll grow up and stop making life so damn difficult.
Where was your first solo show?
My first ever solo show, Dolly Parton Behind A Tree, was in the project room of Kim Light Gallery in L.A. in March 2008, with painter Keith Mayerson in the main space.
How was it received?
I had a really nice review from the ‘L.A. Times’ right off the bat and that was great. I’ve been pretty fortunate to get a fair amount of critical reaction to my work over the years, but my first show was also a wake up call to the business side of art I wasn’t necessarily prepared for. It’s not like I was too fragile for it, but you know the old cliché about art coming from the heart, and a place of utmost integrity–which can be severely contradictory to the commercial reality. I’ve learned a lot since then, but obviously I’m still just as uncompromising about the work.
I think emerging artists sometime get taken advantage of.
There was this shadiness in the art world that I wasn’t prepared for. I come from a place where I have worked hard and care deeply about what I’m doing and was willing to starve to do it. Maybe I was a little too crazed and feral back then to be dealt with. But when you find a solid marriage with a dealer, and you gain more confidence in yourself, it’s been proven to me that things can run a lot smoother. If there’s trust and mutual respect, a good dealer can bring constructiveness that maybe you wouldn’t have listened to before. All I ever want is mutual respect. I give everybody an ‘A+’ going in. People have to be a pretty huge dipshit to earn an ‘F’ with me.
Who did you vote for in the US election?
Obama. My political awareness, and the hair’s on the back of my neck were standing on end when ‘W’ got elected for the first time in 2000. When it happened a second time, I totally shit the bed. I thought it was a joke candidacy and now we’re two terms in! I wanted to understand how between L.A. and New York, there is this wide patch of earth that actually views things completely opposite of me. I hate to knock people on the way they see things politically because I understand the various conditions which shape their persuasions. I mean, I’m a Jew, and a strong Israel is very important to me, but I can also at least attempt to see the Palestinian point of view. But, me talking about compromise is like the pot calling the kettle black, I guess.
Yes it’s a tough road for Obama. Even though he got elected he’s just gonna be putting out fires that have already been started.
Yeah, running for class president is one thing…I would never want to be in his position. It wouldn’t be about stumping for the resurrection of ‘The Pajama Dance’ anymore!(laughs) I like having a president that has some of the same interests I do, like soul music and hoops. I remember when he sang that bar from Al Green and I was like, ‘Alll rigght.’
What art are you working on these days?
Right now, I’m exclusively focused on works for my solo show opening this September at Ambach & Rice in L.A. I’ve also introduced a new medium to my work: pastels. So far so good!
Are their any political issues that are inspiring your work right now?
I’ve titled my show ‘Ebony & Benghazi,’ if that gives any indication.
Have you heard the scandal about the Toronto mayor?(laughing)
I think the Crackstarter campaign is a template which will be used for all future political scandals! Those cats that set up Marion Barry back in the day are kicking themselves!
New work by Eric Yanhker can be seen at the L.A. Louver group show called ‘Rouge Wave 13’ until August 23rd , and also at his next solo exhibition opening on September 6th at Ambach & Rice called ‘Ebony & Benghazi’.