Eric Yahnker

The Serious Side of a Joke

Text by Sage Vaughn // Portrait by Thomas Law

There’s a game I like to play where I try to link a musician and an artist whose careers, styles, or personas echo each other. Here’s some easy ones: Louise Bourgeois is Patti Smith, FUTURA is Suicide, Kara Walker is Nina Simone and Salvador Dali is Frank Zappa. There are some others that are also good but may not be as perfect a match: Alex Katz could be Billy Joel, Mary Weatherford could be Alice Coltrane, Urs Fischer could be DEVO, and Picasso might be the closest this game gets to the Rolling Stones. Now I am sure there are some good Dua Lipas and Bad Bunnys; I just don’t know what they are yet. Time helps. A little bit of length of tooth in the career makes it easier to pair such entities. But I am having a hard time coming up with a match for the subject of this article. Maybe Eric Yahnker is Ween? At times his humor reminds me a little of James Murphy’s deadpan lyrical witticisms, but other times he swings for the fences and is orbiting Weird Al territory… which is a good thing when you are trying to accomplish what Yahnker is working towards: Humor in Art. How do you make a joke someone would want to live with?

Eric Yahnker: The Serious Side of a Joke
Wet Eyes On Me, Charcoal, conte crayon and pastel on Stonehenge


I like to hear how creatives become inspired or what permissions they allow themselves. Chefs are the best; they are so viscerally connected to their process. They become enchanted by the sight of a tomato at a farmers market, devise a method to bring out an aspect of said tomato, and then we get to shove it in our mouths. We literally ingest their creation. I am jealous of that entire creative process. They even get to say things I could never say concerning my work: “I want to teach people with my food.” Rock musicians are the worst. If you ask them how they came up with a song, lyric, or melody, they usually reply with some form of “I don’t know man, it just came to me in like five minutes," thereby completely deflating a profound experience I once had with my incredibly stoned buddy Darren in my car at the top of Mulholland Drive in 11th grade. Some of the most compelling discussions I’ve heard regarding the creative process are from comedians. Maybe it’s because they’re so well adapted to conveyance that I find myself relating a lot to the way they craft their material. I drove out to the desert to speak with Eric about Humor in Art, maybe to discuss how comedy and art are both devised internally and then exposed to the public to elicit sentiments that circumvent logic, or maybe find what artist he finds funny… Philip Guston, Nicole Eisenman, John Currin, or even how Shepard Fairy has absolutely no scent of humor in his work. But no, he is laser focused on pedagogy. Which may be the least funny subject in today’s context next to the current election cycle. He is now finished with his hours as an Observed Teacher and is a full-fledged, Public High School Art Teacher. He is taking on a worthy challenge in an entirely new field. Most artists with his level of self-sustaining success would probably just try and keep the ball rolling. None of his art-world notoriety or cache has followed him into this new arena. “Not one person who I go to school with, at night or in the school I teach in... knows who I am as an artist. It's very humbling.” He mentions how the five years he has spent parenting his daughter have prepared him for it. This very funny boisterous man is humbly on his way to making this world a little better.


Eric Yahnker: The Serious Side of a Joke
Britney in the Lion's Den, Colored pencil on paper


I ask him what prompted the altruistic midlife crisis, and he explains that after Trump became president, he would often find himself in a room full of like-minded folks all talking about what they wanted to change. Then, the next week, he would find himself surrounded by similar looking people saying similar things. With “So many points of entry... Way too much access... We don’t recognize our privilege... I’m so open to wanting to know how I can put my money where my mouth is…” to “Not trying at all, cause it's too hard is bullshit.” He had made a group of increasingly ridiculous pieces of Donald J. Trump, which all sold. This freaked him out. So, in response, he began work on a series of pieces of Obama entitled The Long Goodbye, which he exhibited at CAM Raleigh. There’s a conceptual craft here that is agile and adept. Some artists rely on vague motifs or overly verbose statements to support their work, but Yahnker has the technical chops and the sharp skills of a deep-thinking satirist to back it all up. Having a journalistic mind helps him to utilize the elements of pop culture that have merit. He accredits Paul Conrad, the Pulitzer Prize winning LA Times political cartoonist, as his guiding star. “Funny thing is I was funny before I made artwork. I wanted to get into political cartooning. I could thread the needle between journalism and art.” I believe his eye, refracted with stylish imagery, for current affairs, can then allow a deeper line of thought to be shared. Humor is like a spoon full of sugar helping the medicine go down. “If I’m going to say all this about race or sexism...  you have to look at your own favoritism, nationalism, or pride… America, it's always been this combination of the best and worst… which is Interesting visually.” 


Eric Yahnker: The Serious Side of a Joke
Lost Angeles, Pastel on sandpaper


Some of the works in the show are great one-liners. Raptism, depicting Kanye West holding a baby Kanye West ready for his first dip in the Holy Water, and El Coyote, showing the titled predator holding a copy of Dianetics in his mouth, are jokes that are akin to a late-night host monologue. This is how we process much of the world for the past 50 years. It could be an international hostage situation or a celebrity hitting bottom; the nightly jester and his team of writers do much of the heavy cognitive lifting. Britney in the Lion’s Den is another great example. Yahnker said this was the nucleus of the entire show. How do we chew up and spit out our sex symbols? Can we feel empathy for a symbol we’ve lusted over, and coveted even if the entire marketing process has become formulaic? The works all ripple out from here to convey the ridiculousness of modern Los Angeles and the global cult like following it has maintained. The most pure and blatant evocation of this in the show is the installation piece a Tale of Two Britneys. On one side of the room, we have a flag that says “Free Britney," representing the battle cry of the Britney-Stans that posted incessantly against her limited financial agency under the legal stewardship of her father. On the other side, we see the sign “Free Brittany Granger,” the WNBA star who found herself imprisoned in Russia after the Ukraine invasion began. Yahnker understands how the media touches so much of our social understanding, and he uses this to make us laugh and ponder. I asked him if he sees any similarity between artists working on their pieces and stand ups crafting a set. “The kind of comedy I have innately… is reactive. It's not a stand up set. I’ve worked for other comedians… I worked on South Park… Comedy is one of those things… when you find someone else you can roll with, it’s the ultimate click.” 


Eric Yahnker: The Serious Side of a Joke
Raptism, Charcoal, conte crayon and pastel on Stonehenge paper


His latest exhibition, Lost Angeles, at the Hole’s enormous space on La Brea was packed with people intently looking and sincerely smiling. This is a hard feat to manage in these overly serious and reactionary times, but Yahnker pulls it off with humility and a professional grace that reminds me of the “Thank you and Goodnight” that a seasoned standup ends his set with at a sold-out theater. The works in the show are on a scale few artists are at ease with. And they are drawings. This is like climbing a mountain on tiptoes. Huge, expressive, colorful works, some stretching close to 10 feet wide, but Yahnker enjoys the toil, he loves a challenge, and he loves to work.  
The first piece that greets me at the opening is Pool With Two Figures. It is my favorite piece to stare at. It is an ode to a famous Hockney piece entitled, Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures), but it is done in Yahnker’s sure handed style with colored pencils, rather than Hockney’s vibrant oils. It also changes the blue sky in the background of the original landscape to one of fire and smoke, which is frighteningly familiar to all in the Southland. It’s smart. The joke hits heavy, but is rendered beautifully. It’s a joke you can live with. That’s an easy observation to make and an easier sentence to write, but an amazing feat to pull off. Time can have a serious deleterious effect on some art, and along with its little sibling "timing,"  it is even morally ruthless to humor. The show opened in September, which should have been the peak of fire season here in Los Angeles, yet there were no hills currently ablaze. So the joke of this piece did not hit as hard as it could if only a few more cigarette butts were tossed out of car windows while descending the Angeles Crest freeway.


Eric Yahnker: The Serious Side of a Joke
Pool with Two Figures, colored pencil on paper


As I wait to introduce myself to Eric, I am positioned in front of one of the most salient pieces of the show. Self Flagellation is a huge image, showing the moment when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars. But, in keeping with the celebrity soaked and poked theme of the show, Will Smith as the Fresh Prince (in full cross -colors and sideways ball cap) is receiving the blow rather than Chris Rock. The joke is great. Folks laugh out loud and nudge their companions while they jerk a satisfied thumb towards the wall as if to say, “I get it.” Timing is everything.
In most of the works in this show, he balances humor with the image, meaning the wit and the message are contentedly contained within the rendering of the image. His draftsmanship is tight, he’s technically appropriate, and he leaves just enough gesture and flair to reveal his hand. But in some of my favorite works, the art is outgrowing the joke. In the landscape series in the far room, he has created some incredibly wonderful renditions of the Southern Californian sky on sandpaper. In all of them, a tiny cowboy on the back of Koons’ balloon dog is central but minor. I feel his desire to make a beautiful thing exceeded his desire to make a laugh. The border between these two elements is not an abrupt line, it’s much more tidal. Humor and art both reside in this area that people would define as necessary parts of culture, but none of these people have a Bring the Pain DVD or a George Condo book in their bug out bags. They are right; these things are necessary, but we don’t need them to survive. They exist without support. They bleed into the edges of society, especially where they are excluded. They ride in the same car—not always, but sometimes… like carpool buddies on Thursdays. They both could be disregarded or used to topple the most powerful. Trump relished the endless critical news reports but couldn’t stand the jokes. 


Eric Yahnker: The Serious Side of a Joke
Self Flagellation, colored pencil on paper


Humor is a vein that runs throughout art’s history. It serves as a lens through which artists engage with the viewer, challenging perspective stalemates and eliciting emotional responses. Yahnker’s humor lies in the lineage of Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q., where he drew a mustache on a postcard of the Mona Lisa, transforming the masterpiece into a commentary on both art and gender. The 23 and Me on Eric’s work would also show a strong strain of surrealism. The questions posed by René Magritte’s Ce’st ne pas one pipe are like many of the motifs in his show. In the current post-Street Art, post-Bro Art, and post-Dank Meme world, considered reactions have value. Reactions are a ubiquitous form of attention currency. But they are also the least considered manners of communication. There was so much “funny” art with the flood of street artists, all of which was barely worthy of a T-shirt. Within Street Art, a commodified appropriation of a criminal aesthetic brought to a meaning-erasing ubiquity the humor driven by short one liners, ironic snarks, and smirking self-help suggestions. Banksy was the clear winner within this cadre, but that was mostly due to the amount of innate satirical wit most British bring to the table and the fact that every other person fell far short of being memorable. Meme art culture is clearly disposable, as it should be. Super salient, but aging as well as avocados. And the “funny” points in Bro Art convey the type of laughter that usually accompanies a punch in the arm. Yahnker’s work can dip into all these realms, but its consistency and heavy hits carry it through. His technical skill, which I rarely see mentioned in other articles, is so sharp, it’s enviable. He can draw. He can paint too, just look at his show of oils, Heavy Lemons at the Hole, a couple years ago, “During COVID, I finally got over my fear of painting… I draw, I don’t paint… when I started painting, I realized I was having a hard time with how much gravitas comes with it… the medium itself has a long, multi-millennia history you’re working up against for the jokes to land. I was just trying to figure out how to make this medium have less gravitas.” For the current show, his drawing is perfectly enunciated. He knows that if his renderings of pop celebrities and consumable culture are not dead on, the jokes won’t have a chance. If you can find fault in his depiction, the laugh would be handicapped. But within these great renderings, there is a calculated dynamism that reminds the viewer that this is made by a hand. He attributes this looseness to his entry to commercial art. “When I came to fine art, I came as an animator… some was fun. Some was not fun, meticulous, and commercial bullshit.” Subsequently, his hand moves fast, streaking across the page, the marks simultaneously precise and without a second thought.


Eric Yahnker: The Serious Side of a Joke
Welcome to the Jungle Cruise, colored pencil on paper


I noticed something else while I was waiting in front of that Will Smith piece: As people walked away, and the smiles expired from their faces, a realization came to their eyes. The heaviness of that sentiment, the relatability of that brutal, self-chastising regret, and the understanding of the madness snuck into their consciousnesses like the Greeks in the Trojan Horse. I watch these same people, who moments before were chuckling at a depiction of the televised low point of a man’s public life, shake their heads with sympathy. “because of the traumas of my childhood… comedy was my defense mechanism… to laugh about the things that were hard… gaining perspective… once you discover that your life was not as hard as you thought it was… now I want to know all about you in a meaningful way.” In Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Valentine Michael Smith is a human raised on Mars by Martians without any human contact. He comes to Earth for the first time as a young man and struggles to understand the ways of human culture. One thing that eludes him for three quarters of the story is humor. At the Monkey House in Golden Gate Park, the woman he is with tosses a peanut into the enclosure; a small monkey catches it; then a larger monkey swats the little one and snatches the peanut for himself. The little monkey, in turn, finds an even smaller monkey to take out his frustration on. Michael bursts out in uncontrollable laughter. “I’ve found out why people laugh.” He says, “They laugh because it hurts so much… because it’s the only thing that’ll make it stop hurting.” Eric is teaching me that his work can be our way to laugh at the ambient trauma we are all constantly creating and simultaneously submerged in. “The longing and the humor, these emotions, As you age and experience real loss, or start to put into perspective someone else’s loss, but really when it hits… all the soft sorrows that came before the real ones… we can laugh about them now.” // This interview was originally published in the SUMMER 2024 Quarterly