Eric Yahnker’s current solo show VIRGIN BIRTH N’ TURF, at The Hole through October 6, is a meticulous chronicle of canonical American cultural mediocrity.
Walking into the vaulted white squareness of The Hole, I’m slammed from all sides by Yahnker’s enormous images — meticulously hand-drawn, magnified portraits of kitsch. Yahnker takes aesthetically unexalted elements of popular media, elevating the mediocre cultural staple and outfitting it with a subtle weirdness. Amidst his drawings are constructed a series of relational installations that inform the work: bottles of “skin milk” lotion are strung up by a thick coarse rope across the front of the gallery; Hawaiian beach towels surround an impossibly tall coat rack, at the top of which a single Hawaiian shirt becomes an exalted totem to leisure. In another room, an enormous portrait of James Dean’s back (featuring, on the panel of his leather jacket, an embedded portrait of Osama Bin Laden with an X through it) is framed by a series of minuscule g-string thongs strung up by similar coarse twine (String Theory). Yahnker elevates basic staples of cultural significance to a meticulous grandeur.
Yahnker deals in puns and tongue-in-cheek associations that become revelatory codes to unlock how America thinks about politics, objects — and how objects become political. Yahnker’s work has been described as “stand-up comedy for drawing”– and this element makes it a kind of unthreatening, even good-natured criticism. Because it’s a joke, there’s a sweet sting. The cultural slams become appealing, and he can get away with it.
“Drawing is truth,” Yahnker is quoted in the show’s press release. But I would say that more specifically the kind of drawing Yahnker does is associated with a search for truth. It’s this kind of instinct to point things out – especially about “what we are doing” as cultural participants — but the search for truth is not truth itself, and Yahnker seems well aware of that. Yahnker toys with us as he excellently copies elements from our everyday lives and embellishes them with the absurd: things that would never happen, things that are not possible. Chili Fries Without a Face is, as the title implies, a massive portrait of a head of Shirley-Temple-esque red ringlets whose face becomes a plate for a glistening pile of chili fries. By tacking on parallel cultural elements, he splashes the “Real Thing” with a slight distortion that diverts the otherwise straightforward path of its subject.
There’s a definite allusion in Yahnker’s grotesque chronicle to the stylistic legacy of hyper-realistic American artists such as Norman Rockwell, and this reference is not far below the surface of Yahnker’s work. One of the sculptural works surrounding the dad-totem of Hawaiian beachwear is a mug rack which actually features four collector’s edition Norman Rockwell sailing mugs, above which presides an old box of Dramamine.
Yahnker references Rockwell overtly both in style and medium — his photographically accurate, brightly colored drawings are like vomitously enormous reconstructions of the same sanitized Americana that Rockwell mass-produced. As Yahnker chronicles sexuality and consumerism in US culture, he covers tropes we know so well that they themselves have become kitsch. Yahnker produces a self-aware imitation, a kitsching of kitsch — extending Rockwell down a new trashy, psychic hole.
VIRGIN BIRTH N’ TURF revels in the motif of the “too easy“. The jokes Yahnker makes by way of these cultural juxtapositions are well-structured. They work, but they are so obvious. Echoing American values of a kind of straightforward craftsmanship, Yahnker’s portraits are like a series of carefully crafted comedy bits: the segues are apparent but satisfying, the transitions masterful but evident. This is drawing done well — a meticulous showcase of talent via its proximity to a kind of presentational reality. An enormous portrait of a graphite Jesus reading Michele Bachmann makes me want to audibly groan, and yet I can’t ignore the masterful construction of the drawing. I want to draw the line, to say the joke is too easy to even be funny, but I sense somehow that Yahnker knows that’s kind of the point.
The genius of VIRGIN BIRTH N’ TURF is in its presentation. Yahnker is aware of the extent of the “camp” value of his work, and he carefully places his drawings within their own aesthetic context. A strategic line of circular clocks extends across a corner wall of the gallery, their faces displaying different iterations of the phrase “WHO CARES?” (e.g. “You’re Confusing Me With Someone Who CARES!” / “I’m Illegal… So Who Cares!”). The display presides over a single LeBron issue Nike sneaker illuminated from the inside by a fluorescent bulb. The fetishization of time and of the balance between leisure and productivity is one of the most highly recognized cultural ramifications of capitalism. Who cares about time? In the context of the clocks, this obsessive repetition of feigned nonchalance becomes a kind of negative mantra. Of course we care about time. The statement “Who Cares” is an ineloquent way of talking back to cultural patterns– a statement which reifies the control of the object over its subject even as it professes its relative unimportance.
The push-and-pull of this alienation, this display of ownership via a performative disowning, is at the heart of Yahnker’s political constructions. Who cares? Yahnker’s work prods us. We do, obviously, in spite of ourselves, and Yahnker sells us out.
VIRGIN BIRTH N’ TURF is on display at The Hole through October 6.
312 Bowery, New York NY 10012