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Surrender to the subversive sentiment of Eric Yahnker

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Jan 11, 2018 | 5 min read

Eric Yahnker is an American contemporary artist renowned for some of the most finely-tuned satirical visual art of our times.

Your work deals primarily with celebrity, politics and pop culture. Do you view these themes as a shortcut to connecting with your audience?
It’s possible that my subject matter makes it easier to connect on some level, but I am also a subscriber to the DaVincian idea that all art is, in fact, self-portraiture. If anything, it appears I appreciate equal parts entertainment to enlightenment. I also like making fun of shit, and who better than celebrities and politicians?

Eric Yahnker – Jedi Pour, 2017, pastel on sandpaper, 41 x 41 in.

Generally speaking, I take a loopy idea and draw it as if my life depended on it, and therein lies a large part of the satire.

In one of your most awe-inspiring works to date (The Long Goodbye, 2017), you exhibited 44 x 3.5 ft. square drawings, depicting President Obama’s final White House Correspondent’s Dinner speech, in the style of an oversized film strip. What is the significance of this moment to you, and how long did this work take?
The Long Goodbye was definitely a new format for me as far as fine art is concerned, but I did spend a decade as an animator before taking my current art route. I’d been racking my brain for years trying to figure out how to bring animation into my work again, and this fully fleshed-out idea came to me in a dream after CAMRaleigh asked me to do a show in their main gallery. I’d actually spent much of 2017 making works that purposely featured Obama instead of Trump. A lot of people patted me on the back after Trump was elected, saying it was somehow job security for me for at least 4-8 years. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, the whole fucking thing sickens me, and doesn’t inspire at all. I chose instead to focus on a figure I respect and admire, and The Long Goodbye was a not so subtle way to reflect on the polar differences between the two men, with the hope we can somehow once again return to a saner time. The whole installation took 44 days to make—one drawing (or frame) a day for 44 days.

Eric Yahnker – The Long Goodbye, 2017, 44 drawings forming an animated sequence, pastel on sandpaper.
Do you see a return to reasoned, public debate in American politics in the near future – or ever?
It’s painfully obvious after this last presidential election that I really don’t know half the country, and they don’t know me. This needs to change, but something tells me that even though we’re all now suckling from the same global technological tit, the algorithms and thought-streams which govern our increasingly segregated worlds are only going to further the divide. Maybe there’s something to be said about the old adage, it must get worse before it gets better. But how much worse are we willing to be when we’re still debating the fucking Civil War? I’m at odds, because in reality, I would consider myself an optimist, even though this last statement has me sounding resoundingly pessimistic.

Unfortunately, 100% name recognition seems to now be the main qualifier for the most important job in the known universe.

Given the subject matter in your art, is any part of you rooting for President The Rock?
All due respect to The Rock and his accomplishments, but satire isn’t necessarily born from low hanging fruit. It almost makes the job a bit boring. I will always root for the most qualified candidate, but unfortunately, 100% name recognition seems to now be the main qualifier for the most important job in the known universe.

Eric Yahnker – Russian Roulette, 2017, pastel on sandpaper, 41 x 41 in. (for Tim Heidecker’s Album, Too Dumb For Suicide/Jagjaguwar)

Your artwork for Tim Heidecker’s recent album, Too Dumb For Suicide, has become somewhat iconic. Great job, some might say! What was it like working with Tim, and how did this work come about?
I only met Tim virtually, but he was incredibly easy to work with. I was asked to listen to the tracks on the album, and I really connected with a line in the song ‘Burn it All Down’ where Tim sings: “Ain’t it a shame he’s too dumb for suicide…” The imagery for the album cover instantly came into my head, and I sketched it up. I sent a few other sketches as well, but I really knew this was the one. Tim replied simply: “God yes.” And, from that it was born.

Your pastel work is incredibly detailed and lifelike. Do you have any formal training?
I have zero formal training for the kind of thing I do, but I did go to animation school at CalArts, which could be considered formal training in its own right. The whole point of making the work lifelike is for the sake of dichotomy. A slapstick comedian always needs a straight man for the optimum laugh – a la Leslie Nielsen in Airplane. Generally speaking, I take a loopy idea and draw it as if my life depended on it, and therein lies a large part of the satire.

Eric Yahnker – The Delivery of St. Teresa, 2017, pastel on paper, 51 x 44 in.

I’d like to collaborate with The Rock on his 2020 campaign posters.

If you could collaborate with any artist, in any medium, past or present, who would it be and what would you ideally create?
Well, I’m not much of a team player, but god knows, I’ve still got a hell of a lot lot to learn. Right now, the first thing that comes to mind is I’d like to watch Mary Cassatt making life drawings in her studio, and see how she is able to be so simultaneously tender, gestural, and confident. I guess that doesn’t qualify as a collaboration, so let me revise my answer to: I’d like to collaborate with The Rock on his 2020 campaign posters.

To see more of Eric’s work, visit ericyahnker.com