“After American society went full monty through the looking glass and over the cliff in 2016, the absurd, disgusting and unfathomable had suddenly become real,” writes Kathy Grayson, curator and owner of gallery The?Hole NYC. Indeed, many have commented on the waning potency of satire when the world becomes apparently stranger—and oftentimes more abhorrent—than fiction.
While that may be true to some extent, whatever bonkers, depressing, “strange and unprecedented” politicians or pandemics the world throws at us, nothing negates the power of art in its capacity to examine what we see and how we see it. Art has the power to wryly poke fun, to deploy a gentle but seething wit and show things up for what they are. Art delineates that there are alternatives to what we’re told; it proposes counter-narratives in utopian and dystopian possibilities.
Artists can help us better understand the things we feel powerless over: if they fail at doing that, at least they can help us interpret them, or make us laugh, or offer a sense of collectivism and empathy. When you see an artwork and feel it “gets” you, or is saying what you’ve been thinking all along, you can guarantee other people have felt that way too (the artist for one). There’s comfort fo be found in that.
“Art delineates that there are alternatives to what we’re told; it proposes counter-narratives in utopian and dystopian possibilities”
American artist Eric Yahnker has just released his first monograph, spanning the years 2009-19. It’s been a hell of a time for America, and so for Yahnker too—anyone familiar with his work will be aware of how yoked it tends to be to the peaks, troughs and upheavals of US society and politics. Having started out with often outlandish, satirically leaning works, you could surmise Yahnker didn’t have it easy with the Trump elections and its associated “pussy grabbing”.
“Although I made work prior to 2008, the start date coincides with the first time I ever publicly exhibited my work—a true first 10 years of venting my frustration, taking the piss and chronicling my passions in visual form to an actual living, breathing audience,” says Yahnker. “It was important to me that readers were aware of the calendar year each work was produced in order to see just how prophetic some of the thoughts turned out to be. From the start of Obama’s presidency to the middle of Trump’s first term, the world we inhabit has seen some major pendulum swings in the era the book covers.”
Over the past ten years his work, which is mostly graphite drawings with intricate, almost hyperrealistic likenesses coloured in with pencils, has variously looked at the artistic legacy of Andy Warhol, the representations of the immigration crises on TV, Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement, Russian election meddling, social media and hate speech.
“His first show in my gallery included a nine-foot drawing that featured both Osama bin Laden and exposed testicles—pretty much what you see when you look up “unsalable” in the dictionary,” Grayson continues. “Responding to, analysing and contributing to the past decade of culture has been a true labour for Eric… he wants everyone to think deeply about cultural issues and not sink backward into knee-jerk cancel-culture superficiality.”
“From the start of Obama’s presidency to Trump’s first term, the world we inhabit has seen some major pendulum swings”
There’s no doubt Yahnker’s work both intends to be provocative. However, it provokes playfully and thoughtfully, rather than school yard blustering. There’s a piquant wit that can’t help but force its viewers into considering their own complicity in certain modern tropes, or conversely, galvanising their determination to stand up against what isn’t right in the world.
Yahnker writes in the book’s introduction that he’s “not someone who generally struggles with words”. His images often feel like mini-essays, visual puns as much as “fine art”. He describes himself as a comedian by nature who need not explain the whys and hows of his work since it’s “already written in nauseating detail. It’s on full display; completely balls-ass naked.” He concedes that to some, his works “may seem too literal, too superficial, too clever, too juvenile or too strange sometimes,” but, to him at least, “they contain multiple planes, facets, vampires and ghosts.” He’s imploring us to look again, just as his images have always done.
10 Years – Eric Yahnker
Published by Anteism Books & The HoleVISIT WEBSITE