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Doughnuts, robots, repeat: The surreal world of Eric Joyner

Updated 14th March 2018
"Las Vegas" (2016). While Joyner's donuts are rarely central to his paintings, they can often be found in the background.
Credit: Eric Joyner
Doughnuts, robots, repeat: The surreal world of Eric Joyner
Written by Oscar Holland, CNN
Eric Joyner only paints robots and doughnuts. Or, to be more precise: for almost two decades, robots, doughnuts or both have featured prominently in all of Joyner's paintings. The rest is up to his imagination.
Despite restricting himself to two chosen subjects, the Californian painter's output is remarkably varied. His forthcoming book, "Robot Existentialism," is divided into 11 sections, spanning themes like transport, countryside life and street scenes.
Some of the paintings revel in their own absurdity, like the image of a robot fighting a jungle snake with one hand (the other is clenching a doughnut, naturally). Others are utterly deadpan.
"Recaptcha" (2015). Having previously worked as a commercial illustrator, Joyner switched to fine art so he could "paint things I like."
"Recaptcha" (2015). Having previously worked as a commercial illustrator, Joyner switched to fine art so he could "paint things I like." Credit: Eric Joyner
In a chapter named "Out in the Real World," Joyner places his robot characters in seemingly serious scenarios -- playing poker in a smoky room, or in court swearing an oath on a box of doughnuts. A 2015 painting called "Recaptcha" shows a blue tin robot sat at a computer, the cursor hovering over an online security captcha reading "I am not a robot."
In an industry constantly searching for meaning beyond the canvas, Joyner's approach to art is refreshingly straightforward. And during a phone call from his home in San Francisco, the 57-year-old summarized his motivation with a simple question: "Why would you paint things you don't like?"

The art of 'being unique'

This career-defining revelation first occurred to Joyner in 2000. Having previously worked as a commercial illustrator, switching to fine art seemed like an obvious way to escape jobs he found grueling and unrewarding.
"For years I did stuff I didn't like for corporation and publishers," he said. "It was a very undependable and unhappy lifestyle. I didn't want to do something boring -- it had to be intellectually interesting to me."
"Friday Night" (2008). In a chapter of his new book named "Out in the Real World," Joyner places his robot characters in seemingly serious scenarios.
"Friday Night" (2008). In a chapter of his new book named "Out in the Real World," Joyner places his robot characters in seemingly serious scenarios. Credit: Eric Joyner
Joyner soon began work on four different series of paintings: Mexican masks, San Francisco city scenes, old newspaper cartoons and Japanese tin robots. The latter offered the "most possibilities" and proved most popular with Joyner's friends.
"I'd been collecting these toy robots for about 20 years, so I started to breathe a little life into them," he said. "Nobody was doing it, and part of being an artist is being unique and having your own voice."
The addition of doughnuts came around two years later, inspired by a scene in the 1998 film "Pleasantville," in which Jeff Daniels' character is seen painting them. Although Joyner's doughnuts are rarely central to his paintings, they are often found in the background -- stacked like buildings or looming over the horizon like enormous, glazed suns.
"Indecision" (2013). In addition to selling prints, the artist's original paintings go for anything between $3,000 and $75,000.
"Indecision" (2013). In addition to selling prints, the artist's original paintings go for anything between $3,000 and $75,000. Credit: Eric Joyner
"I've always loved doughnuts, and some of my favorite artists, like (the American pop art painter) Wayne Thiebaud, painted pastries," said Joyner, who names influences as diverse as Norman Rockwell and Van Gogh. "It seemed natural. And it just rolls of the tongue nicely -- robots and doughnuts."
"I'm not supposed to eat them anymore," he later added. "My doctor said I can paint them, but I can't eat them."

Painting 'to entertain myself'

Joyner currently produces more than 20 paintings a year, naming J.J. Abrams and George Lucas among his more famous customers. His art has also appeared on the sets of American TV shows, including "The Big Bang Theory."
In addition to selling prints, the artist's original paintings go for anything between $3,000 and $75,000. But despite this growing success, Joyner remains true to his founding motivation, continuing to create art for his own enjoyment.
"On a very basic level, I try to entertain myself," he said. "A lot of (my paintings) are to do with Earth and space ... things I wish I could do, or places I'd like to go. So I paint those things and get lost in those worlds."
"Pilgrimage" (2009). Joyner currently produces more than 20 paintings a year, naming J.J. Abrams and George Lucas among his more famous customers.
"Pilgrimage" (2009). Joyner currently produces more than 20 paintings a year, naming J.J. Abrams and George Lucas among his more famous customers. Credit: Eric Joyner
Joyner believes that all artists "have to evolve over time." And while he doesn't envisage changing his subject matter anytime soon, the painter described his most recent artworks as "more confident" than those featured in his previous book, 2008's "Robots & Donuts."
"I was thinking about phasing out the donuts and just symbolizing them with a pink box," he said. "So who knows what the future holds."
"Robotic Existentialism: The Art of Eric Joyner," published by Dark Horse Books, is available now.