The cleverly titled Sticks and Drones at Paradise Row Gallery is Los Angeles-based artist Eric Yahnker’s London debut. On entering the gallery, viewers are confronted with Daddy Issues (2014), a crudely carved wooden cobra with the words “Daddy Issues” lovingly wood-burned into its hood. With a sequined magenta bow on the middle of its head, it’s the Honey Boo Boo of county-fair handicrafts. “Daddy Issues” might as well have been the title of the show, as Yahnker skillfully remixes American pop culture in a way that both reveres and skewers it. As I made my way through the gallery, I wondered who this “Daddy” might be: an American government and globalized pop-culture machine, or a more antecedent, art-historical “Daddy,” one from which American culture was born—namely Britain, but also all of Europe.
Space Jam (2014) is an almost eight-foot-tall colored-pencil drawing that features Michael Jordan slam-dunking into a basketball net whose backboard is the scandalous 1866 painting by Gustave Courbet, L’Origine du Monde (Origin of the World). It is well rendered and beautifully composed—from the swish of the basketball net to the gilt gold frame, from the brick wall behind Jordan to the wrinkle of his sweatshirt; of course, the copy of the famous painting itself is a feat of impressive draftsmanship. Space Jam pokes fun at the male-centric sports lingo for sexual intercourse and even compares the worship of a sports star with the worship of a woman as a sex object. But this piece also attempts to bridge the gap between Yahnker’s own hyperrealistic and pop-culture-based artwork and the work of the great European masters. It grapples with the idea that the United States’ chief export is culture—even and especially to its ancestral countries—and that particular culture is no longer the fine culture of high art, drama, and architecture (although given the pornographic nature of the Courbet he chose to reproduce, maybe it never was), and is instead a vapid consumer pop culture. This entire show grapples with and pokes fun at the pop culture the United States exports (which is both consumed and berated), and also the way that current events are understood outside of our own country.
Yahnker sees himself as a comedian, a political cartoonist, and the “crazy uncle of the art world,” a space that is rife with complications as to whether his work is art or is merely going for the joke. There are times when the show feels too topical. For example, Soon-Yi (2014)—a text-based work in which the O’s in “Soon-Yi” are portraits of Woody Allen’s face—alludes to the recent media circus surrounding Dylan Farrow’s (re-)accusations of Allen’s sexual assault. In the somewhat obvious and also hilarious Crimea River (2014), Vladimir Putin cries a tear in the shape of Crimea. There are also pieces that feel behind the times, like Don’t Mesh with Texas (2014), a sculpture of several cutting boards in the shape of Texas, where the pointed end of the state is fitted into red, white, and blue cock-n-ball thongs—a joke that feels like a hangover of the anti-Bush years. This is the perfect example of the one-linerism Yahnker is often accused of, and I found myself wondering how this art will be viewed in twenty years.
Yahnker’s jokes function in a world where Miley Cyrus’ over-sexualized coming-of-age antics get far more clicks than anything pertaining to the U.S. government’s use of drone strikes or surveillance. These jokes are deadly serious and speak to the tragedy of the world’s infatuation with pop culture and the contextual difficulties of having all of these ideas—pop-cultural and political—exist in the same flattened and mediated world inside of our minds.
Sticks and Drones is on view at Paradise Row Gallery through Saturday, June 28, 2014.