INTERVIEW: ERIC YAHNKER
Looking back at Eric Yahnker’s earlier work, way before Instagram became an over-abundant barrage of satirical visual coincidences and puns, you’d think he saw the future. Armed with a wit that doesn’t quit, and a full load of lead in his pencil, Yahnker’s art, past and present, is authentication that being trendy and relevant doesn’t necessarily correlate with being in the now, but rather with being in the know.
Looking back at your earlier work in 2004 it fits perfectly well with the Digital Art of today. How did the arrival of Instagram affect your work?
It’s hard to really calculate how much any sort of technology has influenced my work. Instagram has definitely helped spread the work further and faster than I ever imagined possible when I started, but you also have to resign yourself to the fact that this is how 99.9% of people will ever actually view your work—a flash of impossibly tiny glowing pixels whizzing by for a fraction of a second. It’s democratizing, but also kind of harsh. I imagine a lot of artists set out to make work they know will pop on Instagram, and I guess in some ways it’s possible that maybe I subconsciously do to. But, fuck, with any tech, it’s a countdown to obsolescence, isn’t it? I’ve only been at this art thing since late 2004, and I’ve seen so many ways artists, galleries, and institutions have schemed to promote their wares come and go. Who the hell knows what the next iteration will be? Simple rule: the work has to be good across any and all platforms, but especially in person! That up close and personal inspection is always going to be where I hang my hat.
Your art is created with colored pencils and charcoal, two tools that are usually associated with doodling and sketching. Was it hard, at first, to get your art taken seriously because of it?
This past year, I’ve actually turned to using pastels on sandpaper for nearly all my work. I had to make a change because making eight foot drawings with the sharpened end of a tiny stick was going to eventually lead to my arm falling off. In any case, I’ve always pointed my compass toward drawing. I was an animator before I was a fine artist, and my only tools were pencil and paper. I think in a lot of ways I’ve built my life around a strange pride for making my life needlessly difficult, so building an art career on colored pencil works seemed befitting of that idiotic principle. As far as being taken seriously in the art world, I’m fairly sure that’s still a long way off.
Have you ever thought of going all digital in your art?
Not really. I mean, I enjoy working some things out in Photoshop, and have even occasionally just shared those collages rather than turning them into a drawing. But, I still love to challenge myself as a draftsman, and I have so much room for improvement. I’m still psyched about figuring stuff out drawing-wise, whereas, I feel I’ve learned as much as I ever want to know about manipulating images in Photoshop.
Your method is old school but the end result is very in the now. What do you miss the most about the ‘good ol’ days’ nowadays?
I’m definitely a purist at heart, but I totally respect that some artists have had the ingenuity to expand our definition of what an art medium can be. As far as making my own art, I don’t really have to miss the ‘good ol’ days’, because I was lucky enough—or determined enough—to find a way to keep making analog art in a fairly traditional way so I could always have at least one foot in the romantic past. I left a pretty good career in animation when I saw the writing on the wall that I would need to trade in my pencils and paper for a computer and tablet or dole out hand jobs at the bus depot. I obviously opted for the hand jobs. If anything, there is definitely a part of me that remembers people being way happier pre-internet. I feel like people are way more isolated than ever before—but maybe I’m just referring to me. Shit.
What’s your relationship with your Smartphone?
We’re bi-curious. These days, I think everyone struggles with that shitty device and how to manage time on it. I really do think personal relationships should still primarily be conducted in person. It’s harder to lie about your life and show a consummately rosy picture when you’re standing in front of a real bud. Yet, I probably bury my face in my phone a few more hours a month than I’d like to admit to. I ween off it from time-to-time when I just have nothing good to say or no shows immediately pressing. For the most part, I really only try to use social media as a promotional tool rather than a way to build meaningful relationships. Hitting that damn ‘share’ button still kind of nauseates me every time, but I know I have to serve the work a bit and let it exist somewhere. I’d like to think people are at least mildly jazzed when they see something new from me rather than just sort of like ho-hum, there’s another goddamn picture of his fucking breakfast again. But, I do catch myself tuning in to other’s lives as a procrastination tool, and that has to probably get cut back.
Your process is quite unique. You start by assembling words and ideas together until they translate into a visual. They say a picture is worth 1000 words. How many words does it take to create your work
I used to fill sketchbooks with words that could translate into works, but the process is even a bit more shorthand than that now. These days, I’m truly just responding to the world around me in a live wire kind of way. If it zaps me, I go straight into making a work. Usually, I’m making a collection of work that goes together for a show, so I’m also often responding and communicating with works I’ve already got in the bank and trying to make them sing together.
What is the most recurrent word and why?
The most recurrent two sequential words are probably ‘fuck’ and ‘me.’ It rears up when I can’t think straight or have those bouts with good old ass pounding self-doubt.
Your work is very witty and sardonic. Where do you get your sense of humor from?
I would say it’s mostly from being a Jew. My grandfather was my hero, and he was hilarious, so I guess his DNA and spirit are coursing through my veins.
If you could describe the world today in one word, which one would it be?
Confused. Although history continually repeats itself, we’ve never been in an age of so much connectedness, which means that we’ve never been in an age of so much willful disinformation and propaganda. Who knows where this leads, but something tells me being algorithmically fed information based on our sordid personal click history can only lead to complete and utter polarization. It takes some work on our part to seek out opposing information from our tunnel vision world views, and most folks just don’t have the time or energy to seek all that out.
World leaders are becoming very popular subjects for artists these days. Can art influence people’s political views?
I’m not going to conflate the role of artists beyond what it is, but sure, artists tend to be near or on the front lines of progressivism, and can perhaps move the needle in a slight way as a collective. Most people just assume artists are preaching to the choir, so the work can get a bit nullified. But I’m quite certain that art has saved many individual lives, including my own.
Today’s politics are getting uglier and dirtier by the day. How important is it to use humor in times like these?
It’s always been important to utilize humor in the most dire of circumstances. After all, satire is one of the proletariat’s greatest foils to tell the actual god awful truth to the masses without too heavy a repercussion.
Sometimes you’ll still get stoned or thrown off a building, but the most adroit satirists know how to toe the line and get away with it. Something tells me cats like Kim Jong Un don’t have a great sense of humor, though.
The ‘PC police’ has gained a lot of authority lately. Has it affected your work at all?
I’m always in a constant research and development state. I run with the collective consciousness in most cases. I’m not trying to necessarily be contrary, ironic, or purposefully subversive. I really don’t want to offend good people—only the bad ones! We should all understand the difference between good and bad, even though somehow that’s considered wildly subjective. The whole Roy Moore ouster in Alabama shows things are looking up, but I can’t help but remain a bit cynical. After all, there were still nearly 700,000 fucknuts who thought a pedo should head to Washington.
Ultimately, I still believe in democracy and checks and balances, not just in government, but in society. We should all be able to figure out how to draw lines that are realistic and be self-reflective. I don’t want anyone to be victimized or bullied, and yet, so many great people and artists have come from such a tormented background.
I absolutely do not condone the existence of humans hurting other humans, nor do I want to be a part of hurting anyone, but I do find it absolutely amazing that so many of our greatest citizens and leaders have parlayed their own torment and personal hell into glorious, world-defining things.
Your work is regularly exhibited in galleries. With all the available digital platforms out there, what is the role of art galleries nowadays?
Art and artists will always have a place, and galleries will always find a way to exist. It’s just going to look different. I mean, how many artists do you know that actually want to hock their own work? Haggle on price, offer discounts, do the framing and shipping, etc, etc. The business side of art totally blows. Most artists don’t have any business skills anyway. Sure, maybe they should, but it seems so antithetical to the artist mindset. I mean, do you really want to look at artwork made by an accountant or a banker? Fuck no! They’re uniquely different skills, and you can’t really blame artists for not knowing how to do anything but make their art.
Sure, that opens up artists to a massive amount of unfairness and exploitation—and we really do need to look out for one another—but a gallery relationship can be a real marriage, and there truly are some good partners out there. I’ve definitely had a lot of shitty partners through the years, but I’ve had good one’s too. Not to sell it too hard, but there’s a lot of logistics a gallery can provide, namely being a buffer between you and the people who collect your work. Sure, some collectors are amazing people, but I’m not the sort of guy that sits comfortably at the chichi, hifalutin dinner party, you know?
What’s next for Eric Yahnker?
What’s next is finishing building new studios for my wife and I on our property, which is nearly complete! I just have to hang a bit more drywall, tape, mud and paint. Our studios share a wall for the first time, so I had to make it all pretty sound proof because my wife listens to pretty terrible music~ha! After that, I can start thinking about new projects, which hopefully will keep on coming!
INTERVIEWED BY RALPH ARIDA