“I hate to say it, but I’m not a true artist,” Eric Joyner insists. “I’m not a madman. It’s not a catharsis for me.”
If there is anything torturous and maddening about the life of Joyner — the world’s leading pop surrealist painter of the mysterious interactions of robots and doughnuts — it’s his workload. On Saturday, the prolific San Mateo native presides over the opening reception of “Glazed Machinations,” his latest exhibition of paintings at downtown’s Corey Helford Gallery.
Joyner has been displaying his fantastically absurd tableaux — in group exhibitions and more than a half dozen solo shows — locally with gallery owners Jan Corey Helford and Bruce Helford since 2006, when their gallery was based in Culver City. While “Glazed Machinations” plunges further into Joyner’s ongoing obsession with the little-understood, symbiotic battles and atonements of toy tin robots and their glistening doughnuts muse-rivals, the San Francisco painter introduces several new elements, including two relatively rare instances in which he uses Los Angeles as a setting.
Earlier this year, Joyner published his second book, Robot Existentialism: The Art of Eric Joyner (Dark Horse Books), a collection that ranges from the seemingly whimsical but oddly momentous majesty of gigantic robots looming over the Grand Canyon in The Horseshoe Bend to the pastoral enchantment of robots resting in fields of flowers in both False Spring and Daydream.
He drew upon his past in advertising by designing collectible robot- and rocket-shaped boxes for South Korea’s Dunkin' Donuts, in a recent campaign that makes the American doughnut chain’s packaging look drab in comparison. Joyner also painted the cover of the August issue of Mad magazine, depicting the feet of the ever-woeful Alfred E. Neuman sprouting from the wet cement of a robot-less Grauman’s Chinese Theatre–style courtyard of hand prints and footprints saluting past Mad artists.
“I would have put a little toy robot halfway sticking out of the cement. It didn’t occur to me until after I was finished,” the artist laments by phone from San Francisco. He lives in the Dogpatch neighborhood with a studio in nearby Hunter’s Point, where he works two doors down from legendary poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
“I didn’t want to do it,” Joyner, 58, says about getting the assignment from Mad, one of his early inspirations. “I was supposed to be doing paintings for my art show. … It’s been a real difficult past three months. I was going to quit the show,” he admits.
“So far, there are 19” works in the exhibit, including three pencil drawings, Joyner explains. The dimensions of the two largest paintings in the exhibit are 48 inches by 48 inches and 60 inches by 27 inches. “I’m thinking of doing another one. It depends on how I feel. You might see a range in this show. Some are more tight, and some are more loose. It’s all surrealism, I suppose.”
How much time does he spend on each painting? “It takes two days to two weeks,” Joyner says. “The more robots there are in the painting, the longer it takes.”
There are plenty of robots figuring prominently in “Glazed Machinations,” from Robby the Robot popping wheelies on a vintage white motorcycle in Robo Biker and a dark pink kachina-like robot surfing a boil of blue waves in Surfer to a robot superhero trying to stop a tower from being toppled by a malevolent gigantic glazed doughnut in On the Roll. A gray robot wades out past the breakers to deliver a pink box of doughnuts to a sea serpent in The Lost Coast, and a boxy red robot is mesmerized by a supercharged glazed doughnut hovering in the woods in Apparition. In Lucky Strike, Joyner departs from his usual urban milieu of San Francisco to depict a street scene of tourist robots gathering in late-’50s Las Vegas — complete with a lovely white mushroom cloud surging above the casino skyline.
Randy’s Donuts in Inglewood is the target of an unlikely assignation in Happy Accident, as the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile hurtles recklessly toward the center of the shop’s iconic doughnut statue. Along with the Mad cover and 2006’s Just Another Day (a Godzilla-versus–King Kong fantasy set atop an L.A. skyscraper), Happy Accident is one of Joyner’s few paintings with a Southern California setting.
“I was thinking about doing a scene at Pink’s,” he says, mentioning the Bradbury Building as another potential backdrop. “I need to do more research in L.A. There’s so much there.” But Joyner continues to find inspiration in his longtime home of San Francisco. “It’s a very pretty city. It’s cool. People are great here, the architecture is awesome. … I like the country too, but it’s kind of important for an artist to live near where there’s a lot of people.”
Joyner has often amped up the cuteness factor by strategically placing intrepid astronaut kitties in such paintings as Catfish, one of a series of trippy jungle pieces inspired by a trip to Thailand that he discussed in a 2012 L.A. Weekly interview. But the artist enters new territory with Corgi of Vallejo, in which a robot warrior torches a stack of frosted doughnuts with a ray gun while another robot is ported in a carriage on the back of an impossibly adorable canine beast.
“It’s the first time I’ve made a dog in a robot painting,” Joyner says. “I had a really heartfelt pleading from a visitor at the studio to add a corgi. I’m sort of an open-source artist, which means I’m willing to listen to other people. I don’t place restrictions on myself,” he adds. “I work in such volumes, I do whatever it takes.”
So which theme came first in his paintings, robots or doughnuts? “Robots,” says Joyner, who studied at the Academy of Arts in San Francisco. “I had done about 10 robot paintings, but I was stopped up. There’s a scene in Pleasantville where Jeff Daniels paints a pile of doughnuts, and I had an epiphany.”
It was around this time that Joyner established five basic rules for his art. He decided that he was only going to paint things he liked. His art had to be unique and had to be something he could maintain for a 30-year career. Additionally, his work needed to be within his abilities yet also had to appeal to other people.
“I like a good challenge,” Joyner continues. “I keep it interesting, not stupid. Although sometimes stupid is better. It seems like the robots and doughnuts got the most interest from people. It’s gone through a big evolution, when I went from painting street scenes and it evolved to robots and doughnuts eventually after five years of trial and error.”
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Does Joyner ever get hungry when painting his doughnuts? “No, but what makes me hungry is mixing the colors [of the paint]. I like pudding, and I like Jello. I definitely have a sweet tooth, and the colors are kind of delicious,” he says. “I love your basic glazed doughnuts; technically, they’re called raised doughnuts. They have the same appeal as cotton candy. There’s nothing there, but they still taste like candy.”
Joyner estimates that he only eats doughnuts once every two months or so. Would he ever paint a churro? “I would, but I definitely wouldn’t paint an apple fritter. They look too much like cow dung,” he says of their aesthetic appeal, even as he admits that he prefers the taste of apple fritters to that of raised doughnuts.
“One of the reasons I chose art as a profession even as a kid was so I didn’t have to be around people,” he says. “Now I have to face 700 people all at once” at art openings. “Ironic is the word.”
Eric Joyner’s “Glazed Machinations” opens at Corey Helford Gallery, 571 S. Anderson St., downtown; Sat., June 23, 7-11 p.m.; free. The exhibit continues through Sat., July 28. (310) 287-2340, coreyhelfordgallery.com.