Precious Patriotism perfectly epitomizes the talents of artist Eric Yahnker. The piece, created with charcoal and graphite on paper, depicts the Lord of the Rings character Sméagol wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat from the Donald Trump campaign. In doing so, the Los Angeles-based artist found a humorous way to reflect on a serious and polarizing political issue. Other highlights from the artist include Abraham Lincoln with cornrows, Jesus playing baseball and a ceramic cannabis pipe shaped like a hand with the middle finger extended. Yahnker spoke with PRØHBTD about art, religion, politics and his old job working on South Park.
Your art has incredible timing in capturing the political and pop culture zeitgeist. What must you do to stay current on trending topics?
I think you have to have a passion for it. I pride myself on comprehending our moment. With everyone having an iPhone in their pocket, there’s no longer a need for artists to depict famous battles or paint portraits for posterity, but there’s still ample room for social commentary. I appreciate the timelessness of certain artwork, but I also want to hit on something with immediate resonance that has the potential to provoke real-time discussion and that can presumably live on as an artifact of our specific time and place.
The Sméagol-Trump parody is a classic with rich political overtones. The image seems to convey an obsession with power and influence that applies to many politicians. What are secondary themes in the piece that might be more subtle?
Precious Patriotism is as much about the politicians as their supporters. Nationalist, xenophobic sentiment on the heels of any massive economic downturn is historically very easy to engender and exploit. Donald Trump is no fool. Unfortunately, those who follow the pied piper off the cliff most certainly are.
Did you entertain other characters for the piece, or was it always Sméagol?
It was always going to be Sméagol, even if it took a little process to get there. I am as obsessive and thorough as it gets when it comes to my “smarty-pants-ness.” Just like multiple choice questions on the SATs, instead of looking for the perfect answer, I’m looking for the one that's “most right." I really take pains to find it.
Religious figures like Jesus and Moses appear in your work, and the latest exhibit in Los Angeles was titled Noah’s Yacht. Did you have a religious upbringing, and if so, how did that experience affect your current worldview?
I'm a Reform SoCal Jew. I have some religious traditions in my life, but they’re more based on a secular pride of heritage than any belief in an invisible sky father or afterlife. Sometimes I have a bit of regret that I don’t have more of a spiritual connection to my ancestors, especially considering how many were slaughtered for their identity and beliefs. Nevertheless, if I am a crusader for anything, it is against orthodoxy or extremism of any kind. In all honesty, I likely use religion in my work with some frequency for its built-in hypocrisy and instant polarization.
Books represent another visual device that helps convey ideas and meanings. Does a book carry special meaning as opposed to using a magazine, tabloid or flyer?
Perhaps some find it too simplistic, but I have always considered myself a concrete or visual poet. The actual content of the books are rarely in play for me. Instead, they should be seen as a verse in a poem. Mostly, I’m referencing the cover imagery, the actual title or occasionally the reputation of the author or well-known story and/or character. But, mostly, I’m looking for a dichotomy or a perfectly unexpected match.
In the Noah’s Yacht exhibit, you placed paintings of Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln in urban styles facing each other. You have mentioned that the Lincoln piece was inspired by Rachel Dolezal, but can I assume the placement across from the Trump was intentional?
In this case, Abe and The Donald are depicted as literal bookends—the noble beginning of the GOP (Abraham Lincoln) and presumably the nail-in-the-coffin end (Donald Trump). One reflects a true grassroots spiritual connection, while the other is a shrewd political calculation.
Do you allow yourself to get into political arguments with people, or do you restrain yourself even when the other person seems to live in a different reality?
I try to use restraint in order to maintain friendships. I truly respect that others have differing opinions, and I enjoy hearing how they come to their conclusions as long as they’re not based on racism or sexism, or most of the ism’s, for that matter. My pet peeve is how susceptible so many are to propaganda. I have trained my mind to see fallacy arguments coming from a mile away, which helps me win just about any argument, at least in my mind. Then again, fallacy arguments are how most elections are historically won.
Purple Lives Matter features the iconic Purple Rain cover with police officers pointing guns at Prince. In tackling the “Black” vs. “All Lives Matter” theme, what makes Prince the ideal central character?
Although the piece made me slightly uneasy, I chose a symbol in Prince. He not only once changed his name to a symbol, but I felt he represented a center on the precarious seesaw of the “Black Lives” vs. “All Lives Matter” paradigm—a paradigm that has become a dog whistle to identify detractors to the cause, open and closeted bigots. Basically, I saw Prince as the ultimate “all” idol: He’s both pop and cult, masculine and feminine, gay and straight, pious and sinner, black and white, etc. Therefore, he’s the perfect hue of purple to firmly entrench the message in the foggy space between empowerment and enlightenment.
You have a charcoal piece in which Hillary Clinton is smoking cannabis. Assuming she becomes the nominee for the Democratic party, how would you like to see cannabis policies evolve?
First, I’d like to see marijuana decriminalized, and then, perhaps, other drugs over time. Thus far, the legalization case studies in certain states have proven incredibly effective in decreasing crime, eradicating cartel influence and adding much needed revenue to state coffers, but I’d like to see more states adopt regulated legalization, and mount further convincing studies before any sweeping federal law change. I’m a firm believer in incremental progress to get skittish populations used to an idea they once saw as absurd or the devil’s work. Too much too fast often leads to over-regulation, if not prohibition. We’re a country that needs to be slowly massaged into our progress.
In the past, was there a particular piece that went viral and first earned you national attention?
The first thing I recall ever moving the viral needle was a set of sculptures I did called Helen Keller Jokes way back in 2006. I think someone posted it to Reddit or 4Chan, or whatever the big thing was at the time, and my website crashed from the traffic. I called the small company handling my website server to increase my bandwidth, and I remember the owner asking me if I had been on Oprah or something to drive so much traffic. In reality, it wasn’t actually that huge a flood, but for a company that probably only handled the websites of local churches and bakeries, it might have seemed pretty significant.
Outside your original art, you previously worked on South Park. What can you tell me about that experience and how it might have influenced your comedic perspective?
In a way, I tried not to let South Park influence me too much. That show is such a freakish phenomenon, it’s hard not to get swept up in it, but [creators] Matt [Stone] and Trey [Parker] have a very specific and brilliant comedic voice and an enormous steaming pile of much lesser disciples trying to hack them. I didn’t want to be just another one. Nevertheless, while working there, I gained a lot of confidence in pushing the envelope and being unapologetic as we were encouraged to do so on a daily basis. Basically, if all jobs in animation were as challenging and fun as South Park, I’d probably still be doing it.
You also worked in journalism in the past. What are skills you learned as a writer that you were able to apply to visual storytelling?
I’ve often said my work is as much to be read as it is to be viewed. I think a fair amount of investigative journalism actually goes into my work. However, the discipline of sticking to “just the facts” was never enough for me. Satire, parody and exaggeration are usually closer to the truth than the heavily redacted alternative.
You’ve said that partying contributed to getting kicked out of University of Southern California (USC). Would you mind explaining?
It’s a classic tale: Well-behaved suburban kid gets first taste of freedom and completely blows it.
Cannabis is a theme in several pieces, including the handcuffed-ceramic pipes in your latest exhibit. What is your primary motivation for including cannabis themes in pieces? For example, is it the racial and social injustice associated with prohibition? Is the potential medical benefits? Or are you simply a fan?
I guess you could say it’s all of the above. I’m actually not a big pot smoker because it usually just puts me to sleep, but I’ve never seen it make anyone violent. If anything, my high friends just laugh harder at my dumb jokes.
What is the title of the upcoming NYC exhibit, and what can people expect?
My upcoming show at The Hole, Steve Jobs’ Day Off, opens April 28. I’m taking over just one room of the gallery, instead of all three, so the show can be more focused. I’m working out my thoughts on it now, but I see it as a satiric, visual poem centered around the increased crossover of masculine/feminine archetypes in modern American society and preserving the myth of ambition.
What is your favorite unconventional item that you have in your home?
I once gifted myself an artificial plastic shrimp cocktail, replete with fake plastic shrimp, ice cubes and a tin cup of fake cocktail sauce. No one ever buys me shitty things like that for birthdays or Chanukkah, but it’s one of my favorite things.
Do you think Ted Cruz is secretly the singer of STRYPER?
I fucking hope so.
Kobe vs. MJ?
Kevin Hart vs. Katt Williams?
What is a social media comment or image that you wish you never posted?
They’re all embarrassing. I cringe every time I post.
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.