Pacifico Silano has always been fascinated by political dynasties. But in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s defeat last November, the media’s immediate casting about for the Democratic Party’s next heir apparent didn’t sit well with the 31-year-old artist.
“Some article was like, Caroline Kennedy! She’s ready! She’s gonna run!” Silano said recently at the Lower East Side Printshop’s 37th Street studio in Manhattan, where he is finishing up a yearlong residency.
“In probably the lowest moment that we could possibly have in the Democratic party,” he continued, “people were already looking for name recognition. It’s this thing that we do. The media does it and we buy in to it.”
The collision of celebrity culture and the 24-hour circus that American politics have become got Silano thinking about John F. Kennedy, Jr., the hunky scion of America’s de facto royal family who was killed in a plane crash in 1999. “So much of the sadness when he died was that it was this dream that won’t be fulfilled,” Silano remembered. “It was like, If JFK Jr. was alive maybe he would be our president right now. We wouldn’t be dealing with this monstrosity.”
The resulting work is currently on view at New York’s Rubber Factory in a solo exhibition, titled John John after JFK Jr.’s nickname. Like Silano’s previous work, which reflected on the imagery of gay sexuality and pornography leading up to the AIDS epidemic, the images in John John trade in both nostalgia and a particular flavor of retro masculine sex appeal. “My gay work ends in the ’80s, and this work picks up in the ’80s and ends in the ’90s,” he explained. “My projects in the past have always been sort of related to my uncle—my gay uncle died of complications of AIDS. So a lot of that was the images that he consumed, his generation. And now this is actually sort of my generation.”
Growing up between Brooklyn, upstate New York and Pennsylvania, Silano would buy supermarket tabloids instead of comic books and was particularly drawn to the many paparazzi shots of JFK Jr. “He was always photographed shirtless and so sexualized,” Silano said, recalling his conflicted adolescent response to the young Kennedy’s physique. “I was like, Oh, I don’t want to see him shirtless… I want to see him shirtless!”
The photos culled from old gossip rags to create the silkscreens and monoprints inJohn John aren’t that dissimilar to tawdry vintage male nudes in Silano’s 2016 show, Tear Sheets. “It’s not pornography, but there’s something sort of pornographic about tabloid imagery,” he mused. Still there’s something more voyeuristic about the partially clothed photos of Kennedy. While it’s safe to assume that the models in ’80s gay porn mags were knowing participants in their own objectification, as Silano points out, John John was just trying to live his life. “It’s us, it’s our culture and the way we sort of devour people. This person’s a victim.”
Silano admits there may have been an element of post-election self-care in his choice of subject. After nearly 8 years working with imagery and themes intimately tied to the AIDS crisis, and then being blindsided by Donald Trump’s victory in November, he was ready to do something different. “It was definitely a distraction. There’s nothing better than coming into the studio and reworking images of what I would consider the original male sex symbol—at least of my childhood.”
As ubiquitous as JFK Jr. was in the ’80s and ’90s, he doesn’t seem to have been canonized in the same way as seemingly immortal celebrities like Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain and Tupac. There isn’t the same cottage industry of memorabilia, tell-all bestsellers and made-for-TV movies devoted to him. Nearly 20 years since his untimely death, maybe John John has achieved the privacy he never had in life.
“Obviously younger people have no idea who he is, which is sad,” Silano said. But he wants to change that, starting with this exhibition.
And of course there’s the irresistible temptation to imagine what might have been. “I think that’s the fantasy of the work,” Silano said. “Who’s to say he would have run for president? Who’s to say he would get involved in politics? That’s our fantasy of him.”
Pacifico Silano’s John John is open at Rubber Factory in the Lower East Side through November 15. For more information, click here.