Interview: Artist Eric Yahnker

Editor Matty Byloos, Interview, October 5th, 2015

If I'm an asshole, a clown, a poet, a patriot, or a sex-crazed creeper...

Nice Pups, Eric Yahnker
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This interview with artist Eric Yahnker was conducted over email by NAILED’s Co-Publisher, Matty Byloos.

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There are truly few pleasures greater in life than laughing. And really, I should probably just stop there, because to qualify any further begins to seem absurd. I first met artist Eric Yahnker when he sat in front of me at the Silent Movie Theater down in Los Angeles, many years ago. Aside from the obvious intelligence and humor in his work, Yahnker is also entirely personal and very easy to speak with. This interview, though concluded more than a year ago, is the short back and forth of two artists talking about the business of making contemporary art in the world today. Enjoy it as if you were a fly on the wall.

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NAILED MAGAZINE: Your artwork has always interested me for a number of reasons, but one of the principal ways is in how it functions in the art world. It always seems to me that your work is well respected and received in the fine art/contemporary art world and gallery scene, but that you also have a lot of admiration and opportunity in a more underground scene, maybe the Juxtapose/Fecal Face types of circles. If you can agree with that, then I’d like to hear your thoughts, including: if you had some sense of how things would play out for you when you first started exhibiting or sharing your work with curators; if you had a preference on where your work would find its home; if there was some seminal moment when you saw things playing out a specific way for you in terms of collectors, audience, and exhibitions; how things shift in terms of international exhibitions; what forum you get greater satisfaction from and why, etc.

Abe Lincorn, Eric Yahnker

Abe Lincorn, 2015, colored pencil on paper, 22 x 22 in.

ERIC YAHNKER: Whatever romantic or cartoon-like notion I had about how things would play out when I first started making art probably bears no resemblance to the reality. It’s been a fun, but pothole-heavy ride. I don’t follow any particular strategy other than just to make work that tickles me, and not be ashamed to show it to a few people.  For the most part, I let others decide what categories I belong in.

I don’t actually recall where I first got the ‘art bug.’ I was working in commercial animation, and in late 2004, I was itching to make something less soul crushing than lame 30-second TV spots. So I quit everything, and rented a studio. In my mind, there was so much caché in the term ‘artist,’ I struggled calling myself one. I’m sure it was out of a semi-reactionary standpoint that I spent the first three years of my art-making on insanely labor intensive sculptures that I thought would force people to think I was a pretty serious dude. Of course, I didn’t show anyone anything I was doing, so I guess it’s a moot point. I was also making myself, as well as those closest to me, miserable. It wasn’t until 2007 that I returned to my first loves: drawing and comedy. That necessary transition is arguably my most seminal moment. Beyond that, I think my show ‘Cracks of Dawn’ in 2011 was the first time I was truly able to capture my personality and put it on display.

Eric Yahnker, Cracks of Dawn 2010

Cracks of Dawn, 2010, charcoal and graphite on paper, 109 x 72 in.

My work is undoubtedly centered on American culture, whether I’m showing here or abroad. I never really feel a need to shift the themes in my work. I’ve come to realize that being American, or more specifically, being from L.A., is pretty sexy and exotic around the globe, the same way we might see someone who visits from Rome or Paris. I remember the first solo show I had in Paris, my dealer had an “I ♥ L.A.” tattoo on his shoulder. Of course, being American can also make you instantly controversial.

Basically, authenticity is my most important medium. If I’m an asshole, a clown, an intellectual, a poet, a patriot, or a sex-crazed creeper, all that should be present in the work. Whether I’m present or not, when a stranger walks into my show, I want them to feel as if they’ve met me, warts and all (readers should note, I don’t actually have warts).

As far as where I’d most like my work to find a home, I remember feeling strangely envious when the U.S. troops raided Saddam Hussein’s palaces and found a bunch of works by American sci-fi, fantasy artist, Rowena Morrill. Unbeknownst to her, she was apparently his favorite artist! I don’t even know what I’m saying, because I don’t actually want my work to exist in the palaces of rotten despots, but I’d be so gloriously perplexed if, for instance, I learned Bashar al-Assad had my “Juanita Horsetits” hanging over his bed.

Juanita Horsetits, Eric Yahnker

Eric Yahnker, Juanita Horsetits, 2009, graphite on paper, 68 x 52.5 in

Other than that, I’m currently working with an architect to erect an additional floor onto MoMA where my collected works will be housed, with a circular bank of laminated recliners where patrons can comfortably beat off to their favorite pieces.

NAILED: I was leaning towards asking about the role of social politics in your work, but I may dance around that door and let you open it how you see fit. I’m thinking of American culture as a language of social politics itself, but also just what you do to undermine the culture you use in your work as another kind of socio-political engagement. You talk about doing what tickles you, however, and being authentic, as primary concerns.

Authenticity may be a loaded idea (it would be great to hear your thoughts on that), and the fact that you use mostly images that already have a life of their own means you end up re-configuring or re-purposing images. Their original politics may not be of interest to you — just the thought of Moses and Leo in a Titanic embrace may be the goal, regardless of what baggage each figure brings in to the mix.

You also mention your personal (creepy? not necessarily in my book) sense of sexuality, and how that plays a role in your work. Maybe you can talk about some of these things — whether it’s from the perspective of working in your studio and having the generative thoughts before making a body of work, or from the perspective of the world receiving and analyzing / appreciating the work once it’s on exhibit and in the public discourse.

Kings of the World, Eric Yahnker

Eric Yahnker, “Kings of the World,” 2013

YAHNKER: Perhaps I’ve made the word “authenticity” sound trickier than I mean for it to be. All I’m saying is that I’m not trying to wear anyone else’s skin. What you see is what you get.  I am my work, and my work is me. Then again, I feel all art is more or less self-portraiture.

My main concern diving into any new body of work is the dimensions of the space it’s headed for.  I start to visualize shapes appropriate to the given space, and then start working on ideas to fit those shapes. Generally, I’ll have a good ‘anchor piece,’ or something I’m really excited about doing, that will then inform the rest of the show. As much as possible, I’m looking for conceptual cohesion more than any particular aesthetic.  The aesthetic works itself out through a basic law of attraction and choice of medium.
I have a vast categorized archive of images culled from every source imaginable that continues to grow daily. Brainstorming is the most fun part of my job, where I essentially play a twisted game of Memory, recreating the grand puzzle of life to appease my darker demons. I believe the default task of my imagination is intervention. My synapses fire at their maximum when re-contextualizing pre-existing images to amplify their comedic and poetic potential. I’m seeking crass intellectualism, or elegant slapstick.
Eric Yahnker, Trillary Clinton

Trillary Clinton, 2015, charcoal and graphite on paper, 38 x 38 in.

I think something you also might be driving at is whether or not I’m consciously aware of all the circular metaphor at play in my images, or if I’m just interested in some surface value, and occasionally land upon a lucky wealth spring of zeitgeist-specific iconography. The truth is that I’m incredibly aware of everything going on in my work, and it doesn’t work unless there are multiple layers of sediment below the topsoil to excavate. I throw away so many ideas that I know might get a chuckle, but are just too stupid for me to do. Let’s just say I want my images to be read as much as viewed. Basically, I know something’s really working when I have as many questions as answers.

Nonetheless, just like Elton John with Bernie Taupin’s lyrics, if an idea isn’t working within a few minutes, I know it’s probably doomed. The simpler the better. There are exceptions, but I know my most successful works are those which literally took two seconds to conceive (of course, the execution time is an all-together different story). In some cases, I’ve placed certain ideas in the batter’s box for years, practice swinging at every conceivable pitch before they finally stand at the plate and take a real swing. Some may never get used, or fall past their ‘sell by’ date. In the end, I know I’m most effective when all the stored images, reading, observing, and thinking I’ve done for months and months has had a chance to marinate in its own hot, greasy juices, until suddenly I wake up one day and can’t turn the faucet off.  It’s beautiful when that happens.

I’ve also come to realize that I am a left-brained artist, which on its face is a complete dichotomy. The left hemisphere of the brain is apparently the epicenter of logic and reason, whereas the right controls creativity and imagination. I’m sure there’s a ton of mythology swirling around the actual science between the characteristics of left and right-brained individuals, but I’m choosing to roll with the broadly-painted stereotype for the purposes of winning my own argument (allow me to facetiously pat my own back here for my maverick individualism, and overcoming of difficult odds in becoming an artist). In truth, I’m a pretty desensitized, rarely emotional human being.

I’ve often said my heart is actually just an extra set of testicles waiting to drop. If anything, I’m just intensely curious and analytical about what is making others so goddamn emotional. Unfortunately, I’m actually so hyper-aware and connected to the harshest of reality, I have a hard time buying into any sort of fantasy. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still take the fucking yellow brick road, but only because I didn’t pack enough warm clothes to go off-roading, and not because it’ll lead me to some ridiculous sense of enlightenment.

Eric Yahnker, 4-Eyed Cat

4-Eyed Cat, 2015, charcoal and graphite on paper, 29.5 x 23.5 in.

As far as social politics, I’m definitely an opinionated, but mischievous person, who likes to keep fires stoked for the sake of satire. Those who know me best know I’m a bleeding heart lefty, but I appreciate living in a world with myriad opposing ideologies, just suspicious enough of God’s existence, and generally high on life enough to keep their mitts off the nuclear launch codes. I want everyone to succeed, but only by first miserably failing. I don’t believe there can ever be a one-size-fits-all political system, but for my money, our loophole-laden, capitalist, two-party deal seems to be the best offering on an historically miserable menu. Ultimately, I’m a proud, all-American, SoCal Jew, with a surprising amount of faith in the so-called American Dream — the only yellow brick road I seem to have a bit of stake in.

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Artist Eric YahnkerLearn more about artist Eric Yahnker at his website, here. Header image, “Nice Pups,” 2014, colored pencil on paper, 27 x 41 in; see the full version here. All images courtesy the artist.
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Matty Byloos

Matty Byloos is Co-Publisher and a Contributing Editor for NAILED. He was born 7 days after his older twin brother, Kevin Byloos. He is the author of 2 books, including the novel in stories, ROPE ('14 SDP), and the collection of short stories, Don't Smell the Floss ('09 Write Bloody Books).