Eric Yahnker’s work is elegant proof that serious art can flourish under the umbrella of comedy by Mayer Rus / photograph by Eric Ray Davidson
Did you hear the one about the prostitute, the farmer, the Scientologist and the rabbi?
Eric Yahnker would likely come up with a good punch line for that joke—something involving Britney Spears or Osama bin Laden, perhaps. Social studies and political commentary are the 33-year-old, Los Angeles–based artist’s forte, and he delivers both with a loving spoonful of humor and caustic wit.
At a time when CNN is just as likely to lead the evening news with Tiger Woods or Michael Jackson as it is with Barack Obama, Yahnker manipulates language and marshals ubiquitous pop imagery to articulate an incisive critique of contemporary culture. His beautifully executed drawings and sculptures have a deceptively puerile quality—consider Beegeesus, a Bible in which every word has been whited out save for the letters that sequentially spell Bee Gees—but his idées fixes linger long after the yuk-yuks have subsided.
A native of Torrance, Yahnker studied journalism at USC before moving to CalArts for a degree in animation. In his second year, he worked on the storyboards for South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, itself a masterpiece of sophomoric potty humor and brilliant geopolitical analysis. After college, he landed a sweet gig drawing and directing Seinimation, a series of animated shorts that appear as bonus features on DVDs of Seinfeld’s last four seasons.
“I lived on that money and made art in isolation for a few years. I was going to make myself seminal—like Henry Darger,” says Yahnker (who is represented by Seattle’s Ambach & Rice gallery). “I felt as if I had to do something serious. I had a chip on my shoulder about coming from an animation background, and I didn’t want to be pigeonholed.”
Happily, Mr. Seinfeld and company could afford to subsidize the six months it took to produce Analogous to the Fall of That One Empire (Moby Dick), a process piece in which the artist cut up a copy of Melville’s novel and made mounds of every letter, number and punctuation mark; and American Socrates, a three-month project in which he copied every page of Stephen R. Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People entirely with his foot.
Yahnker’s more overtly pop pieces eschew process and cut to the chase with visual puns, sight gags and adroit wordplay. In his L.A. series, for example, he simply replaces the letter “A” with various images drawn from the broad cosmography of tabloid culture: Britney flashing her lady parts as she exits a car, Angelina Jolie cuddling a mohawked Maddox and the smirking visage of Tom Cruise.
“Comedy is the quickest way to the truth,” insists Yahnker. “I don’t buy the idea that it’s somehow lowbrow to be entertained by art. People accuse me of doing one-liners, but I can draw a straight line from Confucius to Rodney Dangerfield. They both make great bumper stickers.”
William Hogarth couldn’t have said it better.