Eric Yahnker’s Absurd Pop-Culture Paintings Capture the Madness of 2018

Scott Indrisek
Dec 5, 2018 8:19PM

The philosophy of Surrealism was inspired by an oft-quoted line from an 1869 poem—“as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table”—which concisely captured the movement’s unnerving appeal. In 2018, Los Angeles–based artist Eric Yahnker is keeping the same spirit of offbeat irreverence alive, juxtaposing Marcel Duchamp and Stephen Hawking, Lebron James and Yoda, and Tupac Shakur and Barack Obama. The results are a comical, witty, and occasionally disgusting mirror held up to the perversity of our historical moment.


Factory Reset,” on view at The Hole in New York through December 23rd, features a series of increasingly strange pastel-on-sandpaper drawings, all made in 2018. Yahnker’s subjects—and targets—are myriad, from the junk of pop culture to the pretension of the art world itself. Some works are relatively quiet, almost sensible, like one in which we see Andy Warhol taking a selfie with an iPhone (indeed, it’s hard not to picture Warhol, if he were still alive, having a social media presence whose obnoxiousness might rival Jerry Saltz’s).

But most of the works here happily dive off the deep end, rendering scenarios both pointed and ridiculous with serious draftsmanship and care. Many seem birthed from semi-drunken conjectures: “What if the cast of Friends hung out on their stoop with Frida Kahlo?” or “What if Mark Zuckerberg and Donald Trump were combined into some sort of grinning, hybrid humanoid whose horrible face was almost too painful to look at?”

Eric Yahnker
Christine of Arc, 2018
The Hole

Some are just good jokes, like a painting in which Ivanka Trump appears absorbed in the CliffsNotes to Crime and Punishment. Not everything gels—a painting of Vladimir Putin giggling while eating popcorn suffers, since its subject is basically a meme already. Another, in which a cowboy is seen riding one of Jeff Koons’s balloon dogs, is funny enough, but lacks the strange punch that Yahnker delivers elsewhere. Blue Collars is a more nuanced send-up of the art world; in it, Jackson Pollock crouches over one of his drip paintings, while, in the background, a bemused janitor looks on, not very impressed.

Perhaps the two most complicated works in “Factory Reset” involve recent photographs from the news cycle. In both cases, Yahnker appears to be poking at the swiftness with which contemporary images can become iconic, thanks to endless online sharing and reproduction. Study for a Future Study shows a young woman in a museum, perhaps the Met, painstakingly copying an ornately framed masterpiece that hangs on the wall: a regal depiction of Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the National Anthem. In Christine of Arc, we see the disembodied hands of two installers mounting another painting-within-a-painting, this one of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford taking her oath during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. This work is hung within American Piece, a gridded installation of 105 DVD, VHS, and Blu-Ray covers of films that have the word “American” in their title (as in American Hustle, Tiger, Teen, Pie, Pastoral, Satan, Dad!, Warships, Ballers, and Dreamz).

Eric Yahnker, Orange Privilege, 2018. Courtesy of The Hole.

The piece de resistance of “Factory Reset,” though, is Orange Privilege, a suite of 29 pastel-on-sandpaper works that break down, frame by frame, the believe-it-or-not moment in which Donald Trump passionately hugged a flag on television. (They’re also collected in an accompanying animation.) It’s a strange installation, not in the least because an intense amount of labor must have gone into rendering what is essentially a throwaway moment from a buffoonish person. But that seems to be Yahnker’s underlying philosophy—that even the garbage of our culture can, with a bit of time and effort, be alchemized into something worthy of interest.

It would be wrong to call Orange Privilege a piece of political art, since there’s not much of a message to unpack. But much like Jim Shaw, Yahnker finds in Trump a tool with which to crack open the wider world’s madness. Why give this bizarre flag-embrace the solemnity of the moon landing or the obsessive dissection of the Zapruder film? Maybe Yahnker wants to remind us that, these days, the bleed between the real and the surreal might have finally rendered those distinctions moot.

Scott Indrisek