OF POP AND
“For the first time since I started this art journey in late 2004, I’m actually trying to take a brief moment to smell the roses and refill my cup. In order to still be doing this and growing in another ten years, I want to be sure I don’t start to become boring. Unfortunately, I’m such a man of routine, I don’t even know how to take a break, so I’m still cranking away in the studio every day, and in short order will probably start filling up my schedule with crazy deadlines again.“
If you discuss the presence of outspoken artists in today’s surprisingly tame post 9/11 Fine Arts and gallery circuit that equally know how to amaze us with large scale works and do not shy away from a hard-hitting critique on (American) pop culture and society, then it’s most likely that Eric Yahnker’s name will come to the table in no time. As a bonus, he even draws his huge and clever and insanely detailed attacks with colored pencils only, as his solo show “Sticks & Drones“, which he finally brought to London’s Paradise Row Gallery in early summer this year, affirmed for those in doubt. Los Angeles-based Yahnker originally studied journalism before he made his BFA in 2000 at the California Institute of the Art’s “Character Animation Program“ - a rich background that feeds his confidently rich (stylistically and with regards to content) work. Lodown had the chance to talk to the visual agent provocateur in early September.
Eric, you originally studied journalism... what made you decide to switch to the arts instead?
I guess it was actually a healthy dose of maniacal partying that led me from journalism to art. In true cliché fashion, my first couple of years in college were spent making up for a sheltered, conservative upbringing the only way I knew how: strip naked and drink as much booze as humanly possible.
Eventually it became a necessity to re-group at a local community college for about $30,000 less tuition, and work full-time for a year in order to not completely descend into a “Lord of the Flies“ existence. During that year, I took a life drawing class on a whim, and by the following year, found myself in animation school at CalArts. The rest, as they say, is history.
Were you always most interested in working in this kinda photorealistic style or is that something that basically developed over the years?
I think I always wanted to make ‘living cartoons’. Being an animator and working in a fantasy universe felt somewhat redundant. As much as I absolutely revere a cartoonist like Gary Larson, I wondered what would happen if a loopy idea wasn’t executed with loopy lines, but with photorealism on a heroic scale. I wanted to take the slapstick and exaggeration from the Vaudevillian, animated universe to a place where even the most absurd action or concept could actually exist in the real world. Originally, the images were just collages, but I really wanted to see them larger, and I didn’t know anything about proper archival printing, so I started to draw the damn things instead.
What do you find the most pleasing aspect of working mostly with graphite and colored pencil? Your work is usually very large in scale so the process from start to finish must be a heavily painstaking one, I guess?!
The most pleasing parts of the process are coming up with a great concept and then finally finishing a huge drawing. Everything in between is sheer toil and madness. Especially the huge colored pencil works, which take a ridiculous amount of time to craft. I just really like the sharp, pointy end of a stick, I guess.
I tried painting a couple of times, but it was just so fucking clumsy. Maybe I was too impatient with it, but I really do enjoy drawing. For a draftsman, there can be a tendency for ‘finish fetish,’ or working a drawing until it achieves such a level of perfection it stops looking handmade. Sometimes I have to consciously stop myself from going that far. I still want viewers to see my hand in the work.
You just love to add a biting commentary on pop cultural icons and political leaders to your work... would you say that can be attributed to your journalistic background?
My interest in journalism stemmed from my natural curiosity and need to parse for truth, so I guess I brought that to my art, as well. I would say I’m actually more a writer than an artist. The works I make are always as much to be read as viewed. In any case, I think my genre as a visual author is perhaps ’satirical non-fiction,’ where the truth is amplified to an even higher truth - or lower, depending on the viewers perspective.
Before you focused on art you worked on shows like South Park and Seinfield... what was your job at these great shows?
For South Park, I was a storyboard artist, or one of the guys who takes the written script and turns it visual. Although there were plenty of rules, there was also quite a bit of freedom, and we were encouraged to interject and add visual humor to the script. They also needed me to fill the point guard position in their local basketball league, which I’m pretty sure was the main reason for my being hired.
For Seinfeld, I created, animated, and directed ‘Sein-imation,’ as a bonus feature on their DVD releases, where they gave me famous sound-clips from the show to turn into over-the-top animated sequences with glorified stick figures, as if straight from Jerry’s doodle pad. I was pretty fortunate to work on some really fun projects during my years in animation. I also worked on a lot of clunkers, which is a major reason I became disillusioned and wanted to try making art.