Even if you think you don’t know Eric Yahnker, you know Eric Yahnker. That Abe Lincoln with cornrows? That’s him. Hillary Clinton going all Miley Cyrus on us, waggling a pierced tongue in the face of adversity? That’s Yahnker, too. The artist has spent the last decade making work that’s at times provocative, at others hilarious, and always wrought with the utmost artistic dexterity.
For much of the L.A.-based artist’s career, that medium was colored pencil, though he’s recently “been transitioning to soft pastels.” The entirety of his last solo show, Alternative Fiction at Art Brussels with The Hole, NYC, was made up of work created using pastels on sandpaper. “It’s given me a whole new flexibility and excitement I haven’t had in a long time,” he says. “I still love colored pencil, but I really needed to add something new for reasons both mental and physical. Using colored pencil at the scale I’ve been making my work started to take a toll on my right arm from the shoulder to the fingertips, so the change was necessary to stave off any permanent damage.”
Prior to becoming an artist full-time, Yahnker was “toiling for years” as an animator. However, “when it became pretty clear the industry was headed toward CGI almost exclusively, I just knew in my heart of hearts that wasn’t for me.” He grew up on a diet of MAD and National Lampoon magazines, and his fondness for this era of publishing alongside vaudeville-inspired slapstick movies by the likes of the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and early Max Fleischer and Chuck Jones cartoons, is evident in the playful way he sends up modern celebrity culture and politics.
You initially studied journalism—how has that fed into your art?
So many of the journalism pros and students I was around in the mid ’90s were brimming with moxie, integrity, and a real calling to “speak truth to power.” It was an especially precarious time in journalism, as the face of news delivery was rapidly changing in the face of wall-to-wall coverage of salacious events like O.J.’s Bronco freeway chase and subsequent lengthy trial. Being at USC (University of Southern California), I was right in the epicenter of it all.
The recent L.A. riots also had a severe impact on the community, and USC felt oddly out of place, if not completely out of touch, within the broader South Central L.A. community. Back then, I really didn’t have the maturity or commitment to engage as thoughtfully and fearlessly as I perhaps do now, but it did educate and expose me to many things I continue to use to this day. Journalism school was also where I really started to develop a deeper admiration for political cartooning, namely that of Los Angeles Times’ Paul Conrad. I didn’t know it then, but that exposure undoubtedly led me toward the path I’m on now.
We recently wrote about how difficult it is to make satirical work now, in a climate that seems to throw up real people and sound bites that are as ridiculous as any parody could ever be. To what extent has that change impacted your work?
A lot of people ribbed me after Trump was elected that his presidency would give me four to eight years of additional job security and much ammunition for fodder. I’m sure all satirists heard the same chatter, but nothing could be further from the truth. The whole thing actually disgusts and appalls me, and for a comedian or satirist, it isn’t really a challenge at all.
It’s all such an absurdist farce, creating additional farce on top of it all just feels grossly monotonous and redundant.
If there is any challenge at all, it is perhaps to find some palatable metaphor to depict history for posterity’s sake, in real time without resorting to too many crowd-pleasing cheap shots or using the big orange demon’s visage at every turn.
You’ve said that you “try to create images that engage the viewer’s internal biases, making them more a test or mirror reflection.” What else do you hope people take from your work?
I like that my work can have polar-opposite reactions, which I believe are indeed reflections of the viewer’s own belief system and internal subjectivity. I don’t so much seek feedback, as much as it occasionally finds me. I have been honored in moments where people have expressed that my work helped them see something in a new light, but mostly I’m just happy if the work fosters any reaction at all. Visual art typically doesn’t get more than a split second of a viewer’s time, and is often forgotten just as quickly.
If I can sear an image on the inner eyelid of an individual viewer and cause them to think about it later or engender conversation and debate of any kind, that’s about as much as I can ask or hope for.
What’s your working process like? How do you move from idea to final image?
I’m usually just responding to what’s going on in the world from my semi-limited purview, and matching it with what I think I have the ability to complete by a given deadline for a given space. Obviously there’s a lot more complexity within that process, but that’s the best way I can answer simply.
I need a fair amount of alone time, as I know I can get really intense when I’m working, like a dog over his food bowl. I’m actually moving into a new studio for the first time in 11 years this summer, in order to have a bit more wall space to better view and work on multiple works at a time. In my current space, I’ve only had the ability to work on one piece at a time, so it’ll be interesting to see if this adds or changes anything about my process.
Which celebrities or pop culture references are the most fun to make work from?
Pop culture references are really only fun to use if it can propel a concept forward. I try not to use a public figure or celebrity just for the sake of using them in an exploitative way or bid for attention. But don’t get me wrong, I have daydreamed about doing an entire Guns N’ Roses-themed show that has literally zero reason to exist.
Your work has often had a lot of “viral” qualities about it—is that a deliberate thing?
In the past I’ve hinted that I like to entertain as much as enlighten, but I’m not sure that’s the ultimate goal. I started making my work before “going viral” was really a thing, so perhaps it’s just a collective consciousness that some of the work contains that “viral” association.
You’ve spoken about “uncomfortable self-examination” in making your work. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
I’ve always believed that all art is self-portraiture, so it’s fairly obvious that my mental state and personal failings will also find their way into the work.
Perhaps it’s not plainly obvious to those who don’t know me, but there’s definitely works of mine that will forever call to mind my particular mood, depressed state, associations of guilt, or other harsh feelings I’ve experienced, when I look back at them.
In this way, some works can even be a bit hard to look at for how they’re tied in or associated to my personal life.
If you could choose one artist to depict you in an image, who would it be and why?
Oh man, I think I would want George W. Bush to paint me. He’s got a bit of a knack for portraiture, and it’s probably only fair he get a crack at me after my depictions of him.