Eric Yahnker is new to desert dwelling and fatherhood. He is, however, an old hand when it comes to thought provoking artwork. His satirical portraiture and animation have garnered both praise and claims of problematicism. But, as Eric says, he’s happy as long as he gets “more right on than fuck you.”
Eric recently moved from L.A. to the middle of the desert, where blessings disguise themselves as spotty wifi. Recently, Eric travelled to NYC for a show with his young four-month-old and made it back without having a panic attack…which he is especially proud of. We caught up with the salty, epic artist over the phone and got his word on his new appreciation for local wildlife, his wife’s role as an offensiveness-checker and the mixed pleasures of life in the country.
Who am I speaking with?
This is Eric Yahnker. You know I’m too damn naked to answer the phone right now. So please leave your name and number at the beep, you know what to do….hey, man, what’s happening?
Sweating bullets in the car, trying to get a little peace and quiet so I can record your voice at the perfect decibel you feel me?
Oh nice. I like to know that you’re covered in oil while talking to me. That sounds great.
It’s coconut oil.
Thought you were more of a cocoa butter guy. I always get that wrong.
We’ll let that slide. So what’s happening?
Well, let’s see. Just getting back in. The most important thing that happened was that I was able to successfully take a four-month-old across the nation twice and get her back safe and sound and not have a complete panic attack. Other than that, I just had this little show in New York.
How was the show? Did you feel prepared?
I was pretty prepared. I usually am because otherwise I tend to get impatient. It’s been a pretty nice thing, switching mediums to something that makes me do things a little quicker. I can get things done in advance. Also, just having a gallery that I trust makes the process much better. The only thing that happened on opening night that was mildly unanticipated was the big snow that stopped New York and its tracks. But it was really cool because, being from the desert, my four-month-old certainly had never seen snow before and probably won’t for a long time. So that was pretty epic.
How has it been leaving L.A. and moving out into the desert?
Well, I definitely found that it’s not the kind of place where you bring an apple pie to your neighbor unless you want to get shot. Secondly, the landscape is like Mars out here and it can be brutal in the summer. But the thing that people don’t know, is that it’s absolute paradise. It’s teeming with more wildlife than any place I’ve ever lived. In the skid row area of downtown LA they certainly had their share of rodents and insects and all kinds of fun little things but out here we’ve got so many furry things and you know, cold-blooded things. It is an awesome paradise out here.
Has the setting affected your work at all?
The Wifi is shit around here. So that’s a blessing. It’s a godsend for my work. I got nothing better to do than cartwheel over to my studio in the morning. Sometimes I’m getting in there at 6:00 in the morning because, Goddamn, it’s beautiful during the summertime but it also heats up real quick.
So I duck outdoors for the twelve seconds and few paces it takes to get to the studio. Every once in a while my wife and I walkie-talkie between the house and studio and on occasion she’ll be working in here soon. Other than that, the landscape just makes you settle in and work. Especially when you’re really passionate and believe in the material you’re making you just want to get to it. Also because living in the city so many of my friends are musicians that I’d be going to a show to three times a week. Out here I have a built-in excuse why I can’t make it. So I get to keep working.
Since your wife is an artist do you reach out to her-or any other creatives-for advice?
I’m not sure of a damn thing when I go into the studio. I usually just put my head down and go for it and hope for the best. I do run things by my wife but more so after I finish rather. You can tell when a piece is not going well because my hands are just bleeding. Just nubs from blending. And if I’m bleeding that much, it means I’m trying to fix something. So there would be a couple of days there where you know, I would just be like crumbling and would go “Okay, I’m going to bring my wife and see what she thinks.”
Inevitably she’d be like, “Well, I think you could do better.” I would often make sure with my wife that something I was doing wasn’t inadvertently, completely offensive when I didn’t want it to be. If anything, that’s usually what I have to temper but I’m pretty thoughtful guy. So I think for the most part I’m able to handle that on my own.
How do you counteract fear and self-doubt?
Well, let me reach for a box of Kleenex before we start this answer. Of course, I’m racked with doubt. I don’t want to minimize people who are truly bipolar but it does sometimes feel that way. Some days I go in and am so confident that some piece is great. By the end of the day, I know it’s absolutely not but it’s the exact same piece and I don’t know what happened to my head in that instance. You have to walk away from it sometimes and remind yourself that this was a good idea at 7:30 this morning but by 4:30 you’re ready to put it in the microwave.
What are showings like for you?
I’m not the kind of creature who loves being at openings. There is some social anxiety going into it. For a lot of artists that happens, especially when you throw your heart on the line. Making art is really just saying “I am” to people with as much authenticity and sincerity as possible. So you walk into a showroom like “This is me and if you don’t like it, that probably means you don’t like me.” Especially when you’re dealing with controversial material, which I really do swim in just as a human being, not even trying to be some sort of a sociopolitical commentator. You only seek to offend those who you really seek to offend and everyone else you’re hoping they understand where you’re coming from. You hope you get more “right on” then “fuck you.” I try not to think about that too much. I put the work out there and let it stand and hope for the best but at least I don’t let it cripple me to the point where I have to hide it away. So it’s definitely a process in mental process?
So the next question is boring…is there a place for humor in your art?
That’s not as boring as you think. Humor is something I didn’t necessarily understand, but that everybody grows up with. Laughter was a was a commodity in my household and you had to have a thick skin and take it and dish it out. The way I made friends at school was because I was a little pipsqueak for a while there, maybe a little big for my britches, but I got myself out of tons of scrapes just with my mouth. At that time when you’re about to get hit in the face, you gotta say something that makes the belly jiggle, man. I’m not saying my face didn’t ever get smashed up. I was never the guy for fisticuffs. I was more the guy for mentally grappling. There is somehow an itch for for humor in fine art that maybe maybe I’m helping to scratch. It’s always existed in a sort of black humor way, a macabre sort of way. When people go into a pristine gallery space and laughter echoes off the walls in a show of mine, that’s not offensive. It’s exactly what I’m trying to get . I’m looking for equal part entertainment and enlightenment.
What’s it like putting your work out there?
It’s great to be recognized and great for people to digest the work, but you inevitably think about all the things you missed or that could have been better. There’s this sense that’s a little scary and kind of frightens me that I’ll start being boring or people just get used to me and I become the wallpaper.
Do you still like going into the density of the city?
That’s an interesting question because I did my first forty-one years in the city. So I’m still having a bit of a romance with elbow room. I’m not sure how long this love affair will last and it’s very possible that I’ll find my home somewhere else. But this is where I’m making it for now and I’m not sure.
What’s been especially beautiful about life in the desert?
I’ve created a space where wildlife thinks that they’re safe. We’re a haven, we’re a sanctuary here. There’s so many multitudes of wildlife that come literally to our doorstep and some of them are dangerous. But lately, a family of Kit foxes appeared, which are pretty rare out here. Their habitat had been away by a lot of the the Coyotes and they’re just this perfect mix between what appears to be a dog and a cat. I would love to get closer but it’s also pretty cool to be able to wake up at six in the morning and look out your window and see them munching on mesquite seeds. Their feces comes out crunchy so I don’t know how their bungholes look but regardless man, they seem to be enjoying themselves. So that’s pretty impressive to me. That’s something that a city kid would know nothing about. I’m seeing stuff like that on a daily basis out here. So that’s pretty exciting. That’s pretty exciting.
Right on, Eric. Thanks for your time, man.