Eric Yahnker’s Art Portrays an Unraveling America
BY: KYLE FITZPATRICK | LEAD + FEATURED IMAGE: Hill Yeah!, 2016 | ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF ERIC YAHNKER
If you need proof of the unstable psyche of American culture, you don’t need to look to the White House—look at the work of Eric Yahnker.
The Los Angeles-based artist makes large colored pencil and pastel works that mash the political with the popular. The resulting pieces are sharply satirical views of the world that digest our contemporary great American discontent: What’s Goin’ On (Redux) gives Marvin Gaye’s classic album a title change more appropriate for 2017’s political ennui; Exceptional Suicide casts books by Dick Cheney against Émilie Durkeim’s On Suicide to play act an American flag; Atlas Fucked mashes Ayn Rand’s political drama with Black Mirror to yield Donald Trump humping the planet. This list of striking, often hysterical works goes on and on and on.
Eric’s creations are deliciously salty and smart, very much of the now. They’re funny, yes, but represent a growing hopelessness in the face of monsters like the American political system, Baby Boomers, climate change, and—you know—being alive and cognizant of problems at the moment. Eric and his art are distinctly by and for those looking for cultural commentary with a dash of meme mania. These themes are inescapable and likely what will dominate his Summer exhibition at CAM Raleigh.
“It’s all about the laws of attraction,” Eric told WestwoodWestwood. “Basically, if an image out in the universe jumps out at me, it gets dropped into a vast library of stored images, and maybe one day its number gets pulled for something completely unrelated to its original context. When I’m preparing a show, I’m usually vibing on something in the political wind, but alongside satire I’m also really interested in creating something beautiful.”
“I want to be equal parts entertaining and enlightening, if that makes sense,” he said.
Despite images constantly presenting themselves to him, the appeal is in their collision, the joke is in the juxtaposition. “It’s a real filtering process,” he elaborated. “Like a songwriter with a drawer full of incomplete verses and no hooks, I have thousands of unfinished images that are just waiting for that one perfect goddamn hook. I’ll dive into my unfinished landfill from time to time and try giving mouth-to-mouth to some old ideas. Some of these hookless images have haunted me for a decade or more.”
Obviously these hooks have huge crossover potential, appealing to people online and off. But when they takeoff online? They evolve into a cult touchstone. Take Selected Reading (Sleep Book)—in which Bill Cosby reads Dr. Seuss’ Sleep Book as he smiles hesitantly at viewers—as an example: since it was created in 2015, it’s found life as a meme. Of course, Eric’s relationship with the Internet does play into his practice—but it’s complicated. “The internet is a research and development tool just like any other,” Eric said. “I have a love/hate relationship with it.”
“I obviously remember a time when the internet didn’t exist, and I’m pretty sure people were happier back then,” he said. “Or, maybe it was just me. It’s definitely disemboweled many of the things I once loved, including print journalism, but its democratizing power and influence is hard to argue with.”
Still, humor might be where Eric’s most appealing aspect lies in these troubled times. While he doesn’t think it is necessary in all art, it is a necessity for him. Perhaps it’s that point of view that makes his creations so delightfully dark. “[Humor] is pretty damn important to me,” he explained. “I’m a firm believer in the DaVincian notion that all art is actually self-portraiture…I’ve always followed politics and I’ve always been a jackass smarty pants fuckwad assclown with a heart of gold.”
“What you see is what you get,” he mused.