eric yahnker captures the absurdity of pop culture and politics in colored pencil
In "Purple Lives Matter," a 7-foot-tall colored-pencil drawing on paper, artist Eric Yahnker reimagined the cover of Prince's iconic record Purple Rain. Prince still looks fierce in his ruffled shirt and velvet suit, and postures on top of a customized Honda motorcycle, but in addition to smoke and lights, the pop idol is surrounded by two white police officers with their guns drawn. The piece, which addresses the "Black Lives Matter" and "All Lives Matter" paradigms, is one of a dozen exquisitely rendered new drawings that appear in Noah's Yacht, Yahnker's current exhibition at contemporary art gallery Zevitas Marcus in Los Angeles.
Each piece in the show pairs pop culture with politics — think Golem in a "Make America Great Again" cap — in order to raise questions about racism, sexism, or elitism. But the exhibition is not pedagogic as much as it is a Rorschach test. Yahnker's works are intended to provoke us — he wants us to question our own opinions and roles, just as he questioned himself when he was drawing them. "I can honestly say the process of making this show was as much an uncomfortable self-examination as a societal critique," says Yahnker.
You meticulously map out your exhibitions — which you once described to me as Barbie Dream Houses (everything belongs together, but the pieces are sold separately). What is the concept for your new show?
It centers on the current neo-progressive sociopolitical zeitgeist, and maybe more specifically a group of predominantly white, educated, middle-to-upper-middle-class millennials and gen x-ers caught in a clumsy limbo of wanting to join the battle for sweeping social reform and equality, while desperately trying to shed the stigma of their own perceived privilege and ancestral ties to cringe-worthy conduct. It's an inner-negotiation that often leads to awkward bouts of overcompensation and inadvertent ignorance and discrimination.
Why did you choose the title Noah's Yacht for this exhibition?
The title obviously refers to Noah's Ark, but a much smaller, ritzier and more exclusive one, in which the ticket to ride — or ultimately survive — is privilege and wealth. I really wanted this show to be a true visual poem, where the beats, rhythms, and verses reflect individual concepts, but there is a palpable personal introspection that runs current.
Was it uncomfortable because you're one of the white, educated, middle-to-upper-middle-class gen x-ers you mentioned above?
The short answer is yes! I am of the viewpoint that all art is in fact self-portraiture. If an artist is hiding something or being artificial, I think the audience or viewer knows it. I'm not necessarily hanging my dirty laundry or diary pages on the wall, but I try to be as authentic as possible about where my head is at during the time I'm conceiving and making a show. Right now and probably for a long time, my head has been trying to figure out if I'm part of the problem or part of the solution when it comes to social reform. As progressive and open-minded as I feel I am, could it be that I'm still not getting it?
Why make works that make you uncomfortable?
I think it's a good thing. If I'm not making myself uncomfortable now and again, then I'm not doing my job. I'm not interested in egregious shock-bait, but I also never want to shy away from heavy subjects and I intend for my work to serve as a mirror reflection or Rorschach test of individual viewers, rather than just be purely didactic.
Where do you your ideas come from? Like, how do you decide to draw Lincoln with Riff Raff cornrows?
I made "Abe Lincorn" immediately upon hearing the news about Rachel Dolezal, the defamed former white NAACP chapter president who attempted to pass herself off as black. Yes, I laughed with everyone else, but in truth, I also completely understood her desire. I understood some of the guilt, associations, and khaki blandness of being "simply white." I understood her deep reverence for black culture. Most of my own personal heroes happen to be black. That's what I mean about this show being an uncomfortable self-examination. I can voice my opinions, and make art that addresses black issues, but, I obviously can never be black, nor can I truly understand what it means to be black in America.
So in "Purple Lives Matter," a work that shows two white police officers aiming their guns at Prince, what are you articulating?
This piece was one that made me a bit uncomfortable. This piece obviously addresses the "Black Lives Matter" versus "All Lives Matter" paradigm, which has become a symbol or dog whistle to identify detractors to the cause, open and closeted bigots. With Prince, I chose a symbol who not only once changed his name to a symbol, but who I felt represented a center on the see-saw of that paradigm. In many ways, he is the ultimate "all" idol: he's 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 confusing space between empowerment and ignorance.
In addition to the large-scale drawings, you created six sculptures for this exhibition.
Along with brand new works, I'm actually going to exhibit a piece from 2006 that I've never had the opportunity to show. It's called "Erasing Time," and it's a TIME magazine I completely erased from cover to cover. It took me about two-and-a-half months to complete, and is extremely fragile, which is probably why I've been a bit reticent to show it, but I think it's an important piece to include now. I've also included an installation of approximately 350 pump bottles of Purell hand sanitizer, individually filled with spire seashells and hung as three-dimensional wallpaper surrounding the drawings throughout the entire space.
Images courtesy Zevitas Marcus