Eric Yahnker recently opened a solo show at Seattle’s Ambach and Rice Gallery. Though his ouevre spans a motley crew of materials and techniques, his modus operandi tends to favor elaborately laborious processes that can be best described as artistic one-liners. This surprising element of going above and beyond to create such elaborate jokes lend the works a two-sided element of both hilarity and seriousness, in their dedication to tell the joke. Yahnker’s practices range from the absurd, such as re-writing a book on the habits of highly effective people with his foot, to virtuosic in craftmanship–creating sumptuous, beautifully executed charcoal on paper drawings on such subject matter as well, bare bums and turd hats. It’s almost like hiring an entire fleet of the world’s most pre-eminent sculptors and artisans to commission a gold plated whoppee cushion. Of course, this unusual dichotomy as far as sentiment and fabrication is precisely what lends Yahnker’s works such a thrilling complexity. Yahnker’s unique brand of smarter-than-thou humor is a burst of fresh air- a rare blend of intelligence and sophistication, with maybe just one slyly glinting pretensious gold tooth of well-warranted scorn lurking behind his pearly grin. DailyServing’s Sasha Lee had a chance to sit down with the Los Angeles-based artist and discuss his process and the role of comedy in his work.
Sasha Lee: Can you talk a little bit about your process as far as conceptualizing your works? Many of them seem both pre-meditated and spontaneous- can you talk about how you come up with an idea for a new work, and some of the transmutations it undergoes before it becomes the finished piece? (Or are your works ever finished?)
Eric Yahnker: Coming up with concepts for my work is no different than how any comedian develops material. It starts with a drug-addled rage where you beat your own mother, yell at Larry King, find new units of measurement, like how many P.B. & J’s tall your furniture is, followed by a long depressive, schizophrenic funk where you’re not sure who to listen to: your nipples or nectarines.
So, yes…I’m extremely premeditated.
SL: Humor, clearly is one of the presiding principles that links your works together- a complex human emotion that in some ways is kind of metaphor for the artistic practice…creating novel meanings or shifting perspective when frames of references are disrupted and presented in new ways, reflecting varying degrees of a kind of social intelligence….how do you view humor playing out within your works?
EY: Like a designer uses composition, or a painter uses color to lead the viewer’s eye around a canvas, I try to use layered comedy to lead the viewers mind around a piece. If it’s firing on all cylinders, the humor should circulate into infinity — the more one excavates, the more the comedy swirls. For me, the perfect piece simultaneously matches what I’ll term “elegant comedy,” a la Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Jacques Tati, with more slapstick, crude, innuendo-laced comedy, a la The Three Stooges, Three’s Company, Rodney Dangerfield, etc…put all that in a paella pan over a medium flame for 20 minutes, stir, let simmer, and you’re probably serving George Carlin for dinner. Trying to encapsulate and deliver that energy in a visual form for a context and audience not exactly built for laughs is a challenge, but it is my burden to bear.
SL: How do you relate it to the artistic practice?
EY: Comedy is art, period. I mean, how is it that Beyonce is labeled a recording “artist,” but Richard Pryor is merely a comedian? Why not a comedic artist? I think most comedians would love the vaunted title — it would give them something else to self-depricate about. The definition of the word “artist” or “artistic” either needs to be extended to include everyone from porn stars to plumbers or be reserved exclusively for John Tesh and Dale Chihuly‘s spidery orange, blown glass testicles.
SL: There is something ironic in your meticulously crafted pencil drawings, as far as utilizing such an arduous and technically skilled method of draftsmanship to create humorous works, ranging from 4-eyed dogs to Turdhats….can you talk a little bit about your use of graphite on paper, how you began using it and what you think the affect is of the material?
EY: Artist’s choose their medium as much as their medium chooses them. I have no clue why when I was a kid, I looked at those who could draw realistically as magicians. For some reason, painting never crossed my mind as being interesting. It was always drawing. When I entered journalism school, I thought I might go into the field of political/editorial cartooning. I fell in love with the idea of taking major world events, and on a daily basis being tasked with paring them down into an economic, single-panel, black and white image. It’s about delivering rich metaphor and poetry with utmost clarity and poignancy — by a 4pm deadline. No one ever did it better than Paul Conrad, who I idolized, and to this day is probably still my greatest influence in terms of creating a visual language. As far as I’m concerned, the “picture’s worth a thousand words” reference was created for Conrad.
In 1997, I ended up in animation school thinking if I could make my images move, perhaps they’d have even greater impact. Of course, after working in animation for years, I found I was wrong. Especially considering animation studios were replacing all their paper and pencils with monitors and keyboards. Getting back to hand-drawn, single-image making in 2005 was entirely freeing. Other than singing Gino Vanelli‘s greatest hits in dank karaoke bars, it’s what I was put on this earth to do.
As far as the affect of the material is considered, it is probably the same for others as it was for me when I was a kid — to see a drawn image that could almost exist in reality can be magical. Then add to it heroic, larger-than-life scale, and people are equally mystified it was created with the same sharp end of a pencil they used in middle school to doodle cocks n’ balls in the margins of their notebook paper.
SL: In fact labor-intensive processes seem to abound throughout your works, whether removing every single thread in a Gap shirt or cutting up and alphabetizing Moby Dick, re-writing books on “effective people” with your foot…it’s like a ridiculous amount of labor to create almost these one-liners, which by definition are not supposed to be set up arduously, but with brevity. Of course that dichotomy goes on to give the works complexity that they have….can you talk about this contrast, as far as aim and craft, or fabrication and intent….?
EY: Those labor-intensive works paralleled animation in the way they required the same level of patience and dedication as drawing 24-frames per second to give the illusion of movement. I have a few more of these babies in storage that I’ve never shown, but I was also aware it could be very limiting to be defined by them early on, so I’ve been careful to release them slowly, if at all. I’ll be damned if I wasn’t going to at some point unveil Moby Dick though. It was a six-month exodus into self-induced, humorless anguish, which in itself is mildly hilarious — sort of playing on the idea of the painful joke lasting soooooo long it becomes comical purely from the performer and audience testing one another’s endurance, a la Andy Kaufman. At the time I thought there might be something potent about an idea taking six-seconds to conceive and six months to execute…almost like baby-makin’.
SL: Many of your works evidence a fondness of wordplay, even in the title of your recent exhibition at Ambach & Rice, Naughty Teens/Garbanzo Beans, two seemingly incongruous images are butted up against one another, each sort of shedding light and the absurdity of the other. Or your clever use of antanaclasis to recontextualize, of all things, the swastika…reappropriating it in Michelle Kwan, guacamole…..How do you view the role of language in your works? How do you use it in your arsenal?
EY: The english language is a tangible material that could literally be listed as a medium in my work alongside graphite, colored pencil, and tennis sweaters. In my world, just about every word has potential for a dozen meanings, whether by definition, inflection, or a minor change in spelling — and more importantly, they’ve all been used as sexual innuendo to confound ol’ Mr. Ferley. I grew up in a family where if a word was mispronounced or a phrase incorrectly altered, it was forever officially changed to the incorrect usage to humiliate the original offender. Even if the offense was committed when you were 3, it was still hung out on the porch like a bed-wetter’s soiled sheet for all the neighbors to see. Of course it was always “tongue in cheek,” but it made you want to get your shit straight in order to return the favor, Inigo Montoya-style.
I’m not so much a typical set-up/punchline/rimshot type of comedian, but perhaps more reactionary. When speaking to me in conversation, rest assured I am listening, but also contending with a stream of jokes, double entendre’s, and puns involuntarily flowing through my frontal lobe in response to your dialogue. Some wriggle through the pipes and squirt out the faucet, while others are forever lost, or remain on deck for later use. I do often mourn moments where I’ve held back, but I’ve had to gain a certain amount of control through the years so as to occasionally have a normal conversation — the labels “asshole,” “complete dick,” and “who’s Mr. Funnyfuck?” can plague a young man if he doesn’t learn to reign it in.
SL: Who are some of your favorite comedians, and/or comedic acts, and what do you think the significance of their work has been, or how it manifests itself in your works?
EY: I guess I preempted this question by already mentioning quite a few who have inspired and influenced me, but I should also add that comedy doesn’t necessarily come from watching other comedians do their business. What is authentic for one, comes across as bullshit for another. True comedy can only come from gaining one’s own life experience, often through hardship. There’s a huge reason why “Jew” and “comedian” are practically synonyms. My family, just like many others, is simultaneously full of humor and pain.
SL: One of the fundamental tenets of successful delivery for comedians is to know your audience- how do you think this translates to creating works that seek to be humorous within the art world? Are there certain subjects you’ll push/avoid given a work’s reception? How do you manipulate their artistic context to further their humor?
EY: I know my audience intimately, because it’s me. There’s plenty of times where I’ll peel off a joke and get nothing but crickets, but I’m laughing so hard my knees are buckling, I’m getting lightheaded, mere seconds from collapsing with a raging hard-on and an overflowing adult diaper. As long as I can keep tickling myself like that, I could care less who else is laughing.
I guess creating artwork for the wall or floor is in its own way a manipulation of my comedy as it has to take on a readable, visual form. You’re not typically going to get a big laugh in a white cube context, so it’s preferable to deal in ideas that linger or sit with an audience. Like a surprise queef at a dance recital, I want the laugh to come when and where you least expect it, or when consequences in your own life produce it. I want visions of my work to flash in people’s mind when they’re at the car wash, getting a spray tan, watching Oprah, or pissing in their roommate’s Crystal Light.