Wide Open Spaces: Pacifico Silano Emancipates His Gay Erotica

Pacifico Silano, "How I Picture a Sunset" (detail), 2020. Courtesy the artist and Melanie Flood Projects.

Pacifico Silano’s practice is based in appropriating and rephotographing the imagery in gay erotica magazines published between 1969 and the late 1980s. In less-adept hands, the structures and chromatics that accompany such appropriation would simply result in the further aestheticization of consumption-ready material. But in I Won’t Last a Day Without You, the artist’s solo show at Portland’s Melanie Flood Projects, this subject matter is transmuted from merely steamy to a more complicated space, where desire meets constraint and hints at loss. In Silano’s photographs, the raster dots, folds, and stapled bindings of the source images all remain visible, yet bodies are for the most part cropped out. Instead, the artist foregrounds the subjects’ surroundings: close-up scenes in domestic milieus give way to rocky plateaus, distant mountains, skies, and sunsets, all pointing the viewer toward the emancipatory potential of unrestricted spaces. However, a historical background creeps in to contextualize their intimacy as a foil to the social upheavals of the AIDS crisis, with comparisons to our current tumultuous moment at the end of a presidency characterized by cruelty.

By simultaneously presenting and withholding objects of lust, Silano’s photographs – curated by Yaelle Amir – literalize the theoretical camps of appropriation as cold analysis and hot desire. Douglas Crimp, the organizer of the influential 1977 Pictures exhibition at Artists Space, advanced the appropriative gesture as a critical comment on the picture it replicated – a cerebral, distanced response that scaffolds “structures of signification”: Sherry Levine’s President Collages, featuring profiles of famous US leaders comprised of photos from women’s magazines, suggests male control of wealth, power, and gaze; Richard Prince’s cowboy exposes the mythical space of the American West. This idea that the artists dispassionately tease out and make apparent the ideological attitude of their source materials held sway for more than a decade, but in the last twenty years the discourse around appropriation has begun to acknowledge the appetites behind re-production. In 2004 Isabelle Graw called it “a process of mutual influence,” giving equal agency to the allure of the image, beguiling the artist as it offers itself up for consumption. A year later, Sven Lüttiken reasoned that Prince’s appropriations “could hardly be free from some measure of libidinal investment,” whether the subject was Marlboro men, living rooms, or teen models. In replicating those long-established moves of appropriation – isolating, cropping, framing – Silano’s photographs reflect the same cool scrutiny proposed by Crimp. They also underscore the fundamental covetousness of appropriative practice, the kleptomaniacal itch to control the image through possession. Further, Silano’s canny handling of erotica, which allows the viewer to glimpse a scene but not fully apprehend it, shifts the locus of desire from a body to the space that contains the body, expanding the potential for interpretation.

Pacifico Silano, “Delicate” (detail), 2020. Courtesy the artist and Melanie Flood Projects.

The removal of bodies comes off as a coy but effective tactic that renders the works into multivalent narratives. Silano’s fragmentation, achieved by including multiple images in each piece, stutter-steps and complicates the cliched passion of the original images, cools it down and makes it distant. The diptych Delicate (all works 2020) tempts the viewer by proposing a split encounter in which a man, seen from the collarbone up, partly hidden by a door, meets two shadows cast by other men’s heads. Warm afternoon light suffuses the scene, made domestic by the inclusion of a mirror and a dracaena plant. The work bears the hallmarks of appropriation’s postmodern foundations: the real and the shadow, reflection and doubling, the man and his echoes. Nakedness is implied, the erotic is evoked. But without the overt play of bodies, the scene is held in suspension, made still. What starts as a glimpse of future delights turns to something more doleful: the light is fading; the man could as easily be leaving the room as coming into it. Yes to Heaven‘s four panels (two in frames interspersed with two on wall vinyl) give prominence to pink satin and red roses; a man’s face and naked upper chest are merely cropped into a corner, but his thick-lashed, libidinous gaze draws notice. Tension builds between the amorousness of the subject’s expression and the way that repetition of the boudoir motif abstracts, rather than underscores, the space of his intensity, and holds it out of reach.

Pacifico Silano, “Lonesome Town” (detail), 2020. Courtesy the artist and Melanie Flood Projects.

In the remaining photos, the distance becomes less elusive and more literal, as Silano’s fragmentations focus on men in wide-open places, scenes evoking an environment in which homoerotic desire correlates with a longing for freedom. The seven segments of How I Picture a Sunset begin with a man’s closed eye and move through a sequence of images that include a sunset and clouds in bright blue skies – in all, the montage reads as a man dreaming of the outside. In All the Ways to Love a Man, a solitary young cowboy clad in a plaid shirt and white Stetson is partly hidden behind a rock, the top of his hat and lower half of his face obscured by blurry foliage; below him, there is another image depicting what could either be someone’s hair, or simply windblown tufts of wild grasses. Lonesome Town is another diptych that includes rocks and dry, distant mountains in a hot haze, with cloudless azure above. A man’s face appears in the uppermost corner, almost an afterthought. Silano suggests that, in magazines devoted to yearning, there is nothing more intoxicating than unbounded space, a place to be oneself fully.

Pacifico Silano, “All the Ways to Love a Man,” 2020. Courtesy the artist and Melanie Flood Projects.

Seen in this way, the whole exhibition becomes a set-up that addresses the desire beneath desire. Silano has unfettered his re-imaged subjects from the boundaries of their previous formats. Together, the fragmentary images, displaced from their original contexts and formats, spur an indirect bid for an avidity of a different kind, where the longing is not for a specific naked body, but for the emancipation of the queer imagination; open, unrestricted space; and for the luxury of unquestioned “naturalness.” In shifting the camera’s lens, as it were, Silano looks at this visual history of homoerotics and focuses on finding breathing room – literal, visual, or symbolic.

Playing in the back of the gallery, a video provides temporal and political context for the photographs. It intersperses clips of Ronald Reagan on the campaign trail with segments of gay men (and a few women) in moments of unrestrained revelry in bars, on the dance floor, in the Castro, at Pride; the soundtrack is Diana Ross’s disco classic “Upside Down.” Edited in a way that mimics the photographs, with split screens, cross-fades, and wipes, the video grounds the images within a mid-80s milieu, in which men’s bodies and psyches were ravaged by the criminal neglect and homophobia of the AIDS crisis. Silano’s juxtapositions recall Reagan’s misuse of power and its deadly ramifications – upside down/boy you turn me/inside out go the lyrics – and allude to the policies of cynicism-with-a-smile in a time that also held authentic delight and comfort. Though the footage is decades old, the video also serves as a sobering acknowledgement of our current moment, in which threats to LGBTQ+ rights are renewed, most recently by the current US administration’s successful scramble to appoint a virulently homophobic judge to the Supreme Court. In any context, Silano’s allegorical vision would emancipate its subjects, but it’s particularly affecting in comparison to the four years of persecution and inhumanity that has defined the Trump presidency. Where the photos present the natural environment and unbounded land as proxies for gay freedom, the video promises the viewer that even within an ominous political climate, we move to kinship and joy.

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