Feature: A Conversation with Eric Yahnker

Juxtapoz // Friday, 22 Jul 2011

We look back on our May 2011 cover story with Los Angeles-based artist, Eric Yahnker. To us, as we have just completed the first half of 2011, this has remained one of our favorite features of the year. Read about Mel Brooks, pizza on garland, and the deep end of the shallow end. That makes sense.

From the May 2011 issue:

In 2004 Eric Yahnker scored the one big animation job that would fuel his escape from the commercial corporate world. He spent the next four years propelled with enviable focus, clarity and dedication in his home studio punishing his body with obsessive sculptural works and remixing pop culture and history in a series of mostly monumentally scaled drawings in charcoal and colored pencil.

He invites you into his elaborate metaphors and commentaries with an initial “piss-soaked” image, at which you may glance, chuckle and move on, and that’s fine. But if you have the time and inclination, he wouldn’t mind you “putting on your floaties” and joining him in the deep end of the pool, making connections between Herbie Hancock bespectacled by a lesser-known ethnic fruit and the upcoming 2012 presidential election, a 14 foot sombrero and the Dread Scott case, or fingerbanging canned food and the Franco-Prussian War.

Currently enjoying an upswing in momentum as a gallery artist, his pieces are in big demand, commanding higher prices and enhancing the homes of some of those he has so surgically satirized. I visited his live/work studio in an industrial area of Los Angeles, a glorious setting one might mistake for the set of a taxidermist workout DVD, just prior to the opening of his latest solo show Cracks of Dawn. I flew into LAX innocently wanting to get soaked in piss but ended up landing an exhilarating, refreshing Triple Lindy drive into the deep end. – Alexander Tarrant


Alexander Tarrant: Tell me about this stack of books.


Eric Yahnker: I do a lot of ready made sculptures and things like that. I found every copy of “You Can Say That Again!” that existed in the universe. A Mormon bishop wrote this book, published in ’69. It’s not about the content of the book, but more about the repitition, the mirror reflection of itself over and over again.  Point to the point of pointlessness.


Leslie Nielsen dying in the film “Airplane” makes me think of it. That kind of humor, that’s my thing. Mel Brooksian. Everything I do is based around language. If your thinking spans the Marx Brothers to Mel Brooks, or Jewish humor, there’s this big play on semantics. Everything has innuendo, puns, euphemisms. To me, these are greater inventions than refrigeration or fire. Every word in the English language has 12 different useages with which to insult your friends. Everything fits into a “Three’s Company” sort of “Whuaaaa did he say?” – Furley’s on the other side of the door … I love using and abusing that.



Finding that zone of how many times to say, “You can say that again!” I think it’s Steve Martin who has the thing about Comedy Torture, maybe a stack of 25 books would have been too much, 7seven would have been “Oh look, he found some books that are all the same.”


Whereas Andy Kaufman would have been … (gestures to the sky).


What of this Abe Lincoln bust? It looks like you used algorithmic 3d modeling techniques to smooth it, or a sander?


There’s this thing about … what is authentic? I did do some crazy shit that took way too much time of my life to do. Like writing a book with my foot, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”


Did you really write the book with your foot?


Of course, I did! I still have a hip flexor injury from doing it. Several months, every day, 11 hours a day. By the end, it got pretty legible actually.


Everything that I do has this completely shallow end, piss-soaked, surface value; and then, if you want to put on your floaties and wade to the deep end, it has that too. Everything has a meaning in my show. I just wrote a 27 pages thesis on the show I’m putting up, yet most people walk in and just think it’s a bunch of potty humor, and I love that dynamic. It’s equally intelligent and equally inane, but you can take it any way you want and I love it.


We walk upstairs to as lofted area with blacked out windows, eclipsed so that he doesn’t get a gradation of light on his 6 foot drawing surface, throwing off the value pattern of his laarge pieces. He explains his start on this path, beginning with a job animating “seinamation’, a special feature of the seinfeld dvd release where he visualizes famous scenes from the tv show as a doodle-tupe animation, something that with his training from cal-arts took only him only 6 weeks to do, resulting in enough cash to bankroll the next four years so he could focus on creating art in his home studio.


Starting with what scheme?


The first project I started in August 2004. With tweezers and small scissors I started pulling apart this shirt that had like a pinstripe flannel type of pattern. I removed all the threads except for the pinstripe, so the whole shirt was just a pinstripe. Then I started on Moby Dick, which was nuts.


Is that where you whited out most of the words?


The was the Bible. I whited out everything except the letters that spelled BEEGEES and it was called BEEGEESUS. Once you get a quarter of the way through cutting part Mob Dick letter by letter you’re not about to say, “I’m not gonna do the last three quarters.” You’ve already done the first 250,000 letters, you’re gonna do the next 750,000.


That was way beyond anything I ever, ever want to do again.



You cut out all the individual letters and then what?


They’re on mirrored tiles. People think it looks like cocaine, but it wasn’t meant to be that. It ends up in a circle or a straight line, depending on the space. Part of the reason I made the piece is you feel like you have to tiptoe around it.


My comedy comes from this: I was always interested in making the girlies squeal, the boobies jiggle. That’s it, number one, first and foremost, even before the ladies had developed tits, I wanted to see them jiggle. Mostly, it’s in a charming way.


You started college wanting to be a journalist?


When I got into journalist (at USC) I knew I could draw. I just never thought I’d use it as a career. I was working at the Daily Trojan at the time writing stories. I was thinking about doing political cartooning, the editorial cartoons for the paper. One of my heroes , even from high school, had been Paul Conrad who was an LA times political cartoonist. The idea that you could make something in just black and white, so it’s just drawing, completely concise, absolutely ascerbic, acid throwing, and have the ability completely to illustrate an entire text for those who couldn’t read, and do this all daily by a 4:00pm deadline really appealed to me. To think of things that quickly, and be able to execute them print gives you this instant turn-around gratification.


Artists, we don’t get that very often; we get a show maybe once every six months, once a year. Maybe now, you put something up on your website and it’s instantly on blogs, but you don’t get to see it, feel it in person. Someone like a Pulitzer Prize winning editorial political cartoonist has this ability.  Everybody from Honore Daumier to Paul Conrad was really unique and interesting to me. I love that idea. You have your personal politics, and you get somewhat to interject.


What I do now I almost see as glorified political cartooning. It’s very much in that genre, just a longer time period. I use a self-ascribed Mel Brooksian version of history-telling, where you get to stretch history you get to use any century at any point in time. If you need to use a biblical reference, to for it; if you need to use a civil war citation, go for it. I look at a film like History of the World: Part one or Blazing Saddle, and this is exactly the arena where I want people to see my work. If they so choose.



To me, the hottest shit going is the creative vibrations of remixing on the Internet, the fast paced, low-fi visual conversations. I feel like a bit of that permeates your work. Some of the imagery, particularly things like the Lance Armstrong drawing, has an imaginary bounding box around it, as if it was copied and pasted directly from Google Images to our drawing.


Sure, that’s just collage, pastiche. Everything starts out as writing. I’ll show you my sketchbook, and it’s actually not a lot of sketches. It’s mostly just words.


(As he flips through his sketchbook, I catch a glimpse of the Cracks of Dawn brainstorm writing, which went on to become a large scale drawing and the title of his solo show in January 2011.)


I went from Assfest Destiny, then I went Crack of Dawns, then Cracks of Dawn. Spaghettisburg Address, Laughganistan. Plank with Backne, I don’t know what the hell that is. Chicks and math, definitely something I want to pursue further. Elton John’s circle of life inside square, that’s a good one. Tit’s O’Clock. Jimmy Carter Cream of Tartar.


This is what I want to do. I’m pastiching these ideas as much as I am collaging these images. It’s concept collage and image collage together in one.



Did you grow up in LA?


Torrance in the South Bay. Quite literally, it’s a neighborhood built around Christmas, one of those Christmas light areas where all of LA seems to want to come out and drive through. Where everyone has Chinese Elms outside, and everyone perfectly hangs their lights on them, with houses all done up and these homeowners’ association awards for the best decorations every year. I fuckin hate it. I don’t celebrate Christmas, but you’re forced into it. So you become this person who hates something that maybe you shouldn’t.


When I was 5 years old, what would I say I was going to build my fortune on? I would probably say I was going to be an emerald or double diamond in Amway. This is the Kool Aid I was drinking, or grew up on. Art wasn’t even … there wasn’t one mentor from the age 0 to 19 that said, “Hey, you should think about this art thing.” Not one. I didn’t even know art school existed. I know it sounds crazy to say.

That’s why I went into journalism, because it was an interesting thing. I didn’t know until I got into college that there was a place for it. This is part and parcel of where this comes from, or maybe why it is different than a lot of things out there that are classified as gallery art, so to speak. I went in thinking, “You know what? I want to see THIS in a gallery space.” Not knowing whether or not this is going to work or not It works obviously now, it’s working. I haven’t had another job since 2004. Part of that was just my own savings, now it’s workimg.


I can see the animator sensibility in all your stuff. Subversive, obsessive, massive media consumption. Would you agree?


I absolutely will subscribe to the idea that my work if for an animator sensibility. My work is exactly an animator sensibility. I don’t meant like a Disney hound, I mean in today’s contemporary sense. I don’t even mean all the way to Adult Swim. I think some of that is a little too stupid, but somewhere in between,you know?



Something like the dog with 5 snouts, is that an animation reference? A futurism reference?


That’s exactly the idea. If you take a film still from an animation of a dog shaking its head violently, you’d see five snouts in one drawing. People don’t see that because it’s one frame, two frames. It was called the 5th Muzzle, it’s very convoluted and was made for a show in Europe. So everything has the animator’s sensibility about it, but I also attach these conceptual ideas.


I recently read about a study that the average political sound-byte from, for example, FDR’s time, was 45 seconds.” Here’s what is happening, here’s what I think, here’s what we’re going to do about it.” Those 45 seconds would be disseminated everywhere. Now it is 8 seconds.


My first remembrance really of something that was truncated like that was Rodney King being beaten.



Seeing the same portion of it over and over again?


Right, and not seeing the before and after. The before is very important. I understand completely why what happened happened and the community in which it happened. It was long overdue, but that particular clip should not have incited what it did without the editing that took place. Cause and effect was overboard. I was in LA at the time, and even in my community, there were a couple of days where we were told to stay home, “THEY’RE COMING!” kind of craziness.


I remember being in this Jewish youth organization at the time, it was just these dweebs getting together. I was 13 or 14 at the time, McMansions everywhere and a cop rolls up and says, “You can’t congregate.” That’s how serious it was. Even the neighborhood youth organization cannot get together and congregate. These little fucking Jews who just want to go home and spank it on a cracker. We weren’t thinking anything, we weren’t going to throw Molotov cocktails. It was a crazy time being in LA. What a great experience, actually. I really took it upon myself to study all the dimensions of that incident all sides of it.


Before we met I came across your drawing of a wolf’s hindquarters …


Wolf #2.


I was going through all your work, and it put me in a particular mindset. I looked at that drawing of the wolf and thought, “That is so awesome, that wolf has two buttholes.” I read the wolf’s vagina as another butthole. sI just want to twll you that you hacxked my brain into thinking that wolf had two buttholes.


(The first image he pulls up is a reinterprtation of the Dorothea Lange "Migrant Mother" photograph with a grotesque face and a modern day paparazzi era nip slip.)


The idea behind this piece in particular was the FSA (Farm Securities Administration) back in the time of the depression, circa 1930-35, when they were taking these pictures of people and this picture was manipulated as propaganda. Some of these images were actually staged for the “greater good of humanity”, and eventually it would have helped Roosvelt in his campaign to have these images out there and showing the New Deal was working. She was actually holding onto a gent pole, and it was manipulated. They removed the hand from the tentpole.



A better composition?


It’s a better composition. This is one of the most famous images of the 20th century, and it’s partially manipulated. This is the same way I use Mother Theresa. Some people see her as such a saint and hero, and other people see her as such a fraud because they think she perpetuated the condition of poverty in order to further herself, to show how she could alleviate poverty.


So, did this happen in Hurricane Katrina with some journalists? Did this happen in selling the invasion of Iraq? Where was the manipulation? Did Neil Armstrong step on the moons or was this a sound stage n Burbank? Where does it end if you’re willing to take the thumb out of this picture to make it a better composition?


(He then pulls up an intricate colored pencil drawing of a slice of cheese pizza on a paper plate resting on a bed of roses.)



This is symbolic of the Roman Empire and where we stand within it, like a sundial and we are at 2:45 on a 24-hour clock. If you think about this circling around twice you would see that our existence, about 234 years since independence, and compare the 2114 years of the Roman Empire having endured, that we are about at the same time within that context. We’ll never reach that, America will not last that long, forget it. So take a cheese slice and take a bed of flowers, both things that have to do with ephemerality and also entropy, and if you think about it, both will die because of their thermodynamic properties. Hot when served, but you won’t want to eat it when it’s cold, and you won’t want to look at wilted flowers. You look at this Dixie plate, and it has these emanating rays that look holy, which Roman emperors would use authorize on artwork to represent imperial status.


That’s what I mean by bending history in a Mel Brooksian sense. I was making tons of sculptures between ,04 and ,06, and then in ’07 I said “I’m just gonna draw … “ I wanted to get back to drawing. I was making all these things and then it occurred to me … I’m not having fun. God, these things are so hard to do, it’s taking so much out of me, it’s killing my relationship with my girl; I’m just spending everyday doing this, and I’m turning, in essence, I felt like I was turning into my father. The guy who walks into an insurance agency everyday and fuckin’ hates his job and life … and god, kill me no! I can’t wait till the day I retire! Am I gonna do this my whole fuckin’ life? I’ve turned myself into this “making art.” This was supposed to be fun.


The minute I started having fun with the work is the minute people start to notice.


For more information about Eric Yahnker, contact Ericyahnker.com.


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