The art of joking (and offending) is a natural one for California artist/South Park, MADtv, and Seinfeld alumnus Eric Yahnker whose pieces are awash in pop cultural commentary and absurd satire. An artist of symbols, Yahnker communicates with puzzles and tricks; illustrating how everything in this world is slightly askew via realistic charcoal drawings that are hilarious, yet off-putting, in their weirdness. A sharp observer of society, Yahnker’s ability to take comforting subjects (from pizza to Mother Theresa) and whip them into multidimensional statements full of both irreverence (the shallow end) and wisdom (the deep end) is a rarity. One of Yahnker’s foremost weapons is his ability to juxtapose two very normal things, which when paired, create very strange connections. His language is light — jokey and insulting — but it reveals deeper truths once you wrap your mind around the punchline. No matter what, Yahnker’s images are bound to illicit some reaction in everyone in these blase times. In the following interview Yahnker describes his process of creating, talks about the role of humor in art, the role of art in society, and making connections between random things. — Text by Stefanie Weber.
On your process, are you always putting things together in your mind for this specific purpose or does it seem to happen in a flash?
It’s still a fairly recent revelation for me that not everyone sees the world the way I see it. It sort of frightens and excites me at the same time. I guess it’s just my nature to grab a prime seat at the abundant smorgasbord of utter ridiculousness human nature so graciously offers on a corroded, shit-streaked silver platter.
As for my process, some ideas get log-jammed in the large intestine, while others sail out as if slathered in ranch and vaseline, but I’m perpetually in ‘observation mode,’ determined to suss it all out.
When you see something in your mind, what is your next step?
I’m certain the vast majority of wrinkles in my brain can be attributed to endless dusty stores of useless knowledge, which are occasionally activated when connected to other far-flung stimuli. I’m a collector of absurdity. I’m like a doting hen teetering on a mountain of incubating absurdity-eggs, dutifully listening for the first cracks of membrane, hoping to hatch only geniuses. At times it feels like a twisted memory or attention-span game. While most ideas are destined for re-shelving back in the wasteland of my mind, more worthwhile observations get jotted down in my schizophrenically-organized sketchbook, or if it’s a good enough idea, I won’t need to write it down because it won’t leave me the fuck alone until I make it.
To me, your work seems to be guided by both an extreme sensitivity and toughness, so picturing you in artist’s state, what music do you listen to?
Well, extreme sensitivity and toughness are indeed the hallmarks of some of my favorite artists, including Engelbert Humperdinck, Tom Jones, Barry Manilow, Marvin Gaye, Scott Walker, Kenny Loggins, George Benson, The Whispers, Little River Band, Robin Gibb, Talk Talk, Bobby Womack, The Style Council, Spandau Ballet, Stevie Wonder, Ambrosia, The Manhattans, Otis Redding, Luther Vandross, Art Garfunkel, Hall & Oates, Teddy Pendergrass, The Dramatics, Sam Cooke, David Ruffin, Johnny Mathis, L.T.D., and Jeffrey Osborne.
For the most part, you could say I have a penchant for soulful, golden-throated male vocalists – which in my wildest karaoke dreams I’d like to claim to be in my own right.
Do the people you poke fun at understand what you are saying?
The satirist’s tool bag must be well stocked and fearlessly unrestricted in the pursuit of broader social truths. Although it’s never the direct intent, if I’m not occasionally offending, I’m probably not doing my job well.
As to whether my subjects understand my position, I guess someone would need to help me explain it to Helen Keller. No matter what I try, I can’t seem to get through to her.
Some of your pieces seem like puzzles where you had a specific intention to be solved and others seem like they are open-ended. Is that correct?
I do enjoy a certain amount of gamesmanship, but it’s not necessarily crucial to play along. Most of my work has a consciously built-in shallow and deep end, and I’m perfectly happy to allow the viewer to decide how far out past the breakers they prefer to wade. Rest assured, there’s plenty of treasure for those willing to leave the piss-soaked kiddie pool behind.
You seem to be fascinated with how things could or couldn’t be connected. Do you think that’s a timeless fascination or is it very much of-our-times?
Observing connections is more than just a timeless fascination; it’s what separates us from pubic lice and laundry detergent. Human evolution begins with basic survival-oriented observations, such as ‘don’t eat what the monkeys won’t eat,’ and ‘don’t wipe your ass with jagged arrowheads if you don’t want to end up like Oonga.’
Every holy book known to man is comprised of an incredibly diverse set of loose connections, which in large part strives to demonstrate how our incessant buttfucking is hopelessly hurtling us toward apocalyptic oblivion. Actually, the slickest buttfucker of them all was Nostradamus. His quatrains have been sodomizing and soiling the sheets of the quivering masses for nearly 500 years. If he were around today, he’d at best have a sweet gig making crosswords for the New York Times, and at worst, be throwing his hat in the ring for the 2012 Republican Presidential nomination.
Perhaps there is a collective-consciousness brewing amongst today’s thinkers and artists when it comes to weaving seemingly random elements in a purposeful way, but my personal approach can likely be traced back to an early interest in political cartooning, whose historic purpose was to legibly convey the news of the day for the illiterate masses, while employing more than a bit of black humor. With this in mind, I often hint my work is as much to be read as viewed, and is hopefully as entertaining as enlightening.
What are your thoughts on the purpose of art?
Mental speed bumps.
What are your thoughts on the role of an artist?
I am certain I can’t save the world through art, but I can certainly save myself. It keeps me out of the gangs and off the drugs.
Is everything fair game for you and your commentary?
I think so. The only thing I’m not certain I could take is a taste of my own medicine.
Do you feel like you see things more clearly than others?
The minute I start to think I see more clearly than others is the minute I’m usually blindsided by a hurtling 14 inch, glittering, hard-rubber dildo to the left temple, which everyone else apparently ducked to avoid.
Do you ever feel like an outsider?
It’s not so much that I’ve felt like an outsider, but more that I’ve willfully constructed a bubble around myself so as to not let too many others in. Of course, I love for my work to have as wide a reach as possible.
Where do you fit into the hierarchy of art, today and in 100 years from now?
If I had to venture a guess, I’d say I fit snuggly between the scrotum and asshole of the art world, and will likely continue to renew my lease there for the foreseeable future.
On your role as an artist, who do you think is a kindred artist spirit to you from times past?
I’d love to believe kindred spirits would include Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Jacques Tati, The Marx Brothers, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and Don Rickles, but I’m probably closer to Frank Stallone.
How do you know when you’ve done something good?
I get a massive, throbbing erection.
Your art is incisive commentary. How do you stay humble? Or do you?
Being an artist is an inherently humbling experience…until it lines your pockets and gets you laid.
Do you intend to be humorous? Is humor the byproduct of your mind?
I definitely intend to be humorous. I’m not sure if it’s a byproduct of my mind or a byproduct of the fact that laughter makes the girls’ boobs jiggle in such a delightful way.