Naughty Teens, Garbanzo Beans, Rancho and Language Games

The gaze is everywhere in Eric Yahnker’s installation Naughty Teens/Garbanzo Beans. It is behind the shades in low-lying plaster sculpture John Wayne Dressed for Tennis. It floats above our heads when projected from the large-scale graphite drawing Her Happiness Scramble. The naughty teens from the title piece stare us down, as does the viewer’s own reflection in the mirrored surfaces of Analogous to the Fall of that One Empire (Moby Dick), despite being obscured by the letters of Moby Dick stacked in cocaine-like mounds in the round.

Eric Yahnker. Naughty Teens/Garbanzo Beans (installation detail). Image from Ambach & Rice.

Eric Yahnker was a journalism major, so his gaze is not a wordless one.  We know that Dorothy Gale’s shock arises from the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre and that the cup, toothbrush and Preparation H on a pedestal comprise Helen Keller Joke #4 from reading the images and labels.  Reading <0-101 also reveals Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations tucked between 25th Hour and 27 Dresses.

Ruscha and Yahnker play aggressive word games with their viewers. When I think about Naughty Teens/Garbanzo Beans in the context of Ed Ruscha, I keep finding the liquid word paintings at the forefront of the way to connect the two.  Rancho (1968), for instance, successfully demonstrates how the banal pleasure of looking and reading can be transformed into something visceral that comes from the interaction between image, word, and connotation. An instinctive knowledge is essential because the only way Rancho can be interesting is if we have associations with the word and color of the painting and of how the liquid depicted would look if it were not a painting.

Edward Ruscha. Rancho. 1968. © Edward Ruscha, image from

This is one of Ruscha’s many manipulations of language. Lyotard considers language games en route to his understanding of the postmodern narrative:

“Great joy is had in the endless invention of turns of phrase, of words and meanings, the process behind the evolution of language on the level of parole. But undoubtedly even this pleasure depends on a feeling of success won at the expense of an adversary– at least one adversary, and a formidable one: the accepted language, or connotation.” (Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge 9).

Ruscha is an obvious master of the processes Lyotard describes, and Yahnker’s work has clear links to its pop art predecessors. However, the manipulation of phrases, titles, and meaning in Naughty Teens/Garbanzo Beans is most interesting in the outspoken relationship it evokes between work and viewer.

Eric Yahnker. WE ARE THE WORLD/WE ARE THE CHILDREN. 2009. Colored pencil on paper. Image from Ambach & Rice.

In addition to playing with associations, pieces such as WE ARE THE WORLD/WE ARE THE CHILDREN physically “pop” within the viewer’s mind.  This sensation is a multi-step process including, but not limited to: a recognition of familiar images, a realization of the satirical juxtapositions, and the moment of informed understanding of the image/word game at the end of our gaze. In the case of WE ARE THE WORLD…, disembodied, hand-drawn heads become the words describing a live musical scene frequently flashed across television retrospectives and memoirs, particularly as of late.  Yet in this context, it is no longer about the death of Michael Jackson or the latest way to raise money for Africa.  Instead, the image/word game is all the viewer sees. This is true both within individual works of the installation, as well as between works.

The greatest success of this game is the critical perspective such an experience provides.  In many ways, Naught Teens/Garbanzo Beans puts popular culture in the white cube, affixing the most valuable components to the wall so that we can see the humor, the stereotypes, the ridiculous and the essential, all typically obscured by the saturation of everyday life.  Although subtler and less serious than the endeavours of the pop artists, Naughty Teens/Garbanzo Beans is in many ways similar to the relief of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report: clever, poignant, and the best way to end the day.