Every aspect of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s life was photographed, televised, and written about in a headline. His classic good looks and sexualized physique became a staple of mainstream media coverage. American culture feeds off of name recognition, likability and attractiveness. In Pacifico Silano’s new solo show, John John, which is on view at New York City’s Rubber Factory till November 15th. Silano has reworked photos through silkscreen, monotype, and photo-collage that blur the line between the public and private self, our obsession with creating celebrity, and the American fascination with political royalty. We project our hopes, dreams and aspirations on those that are telegenic.
Efrem Zelony-Mindell: As someone who is incredibly familiar with your work I think there are a lot of reasons to excited about this new body of work John John. Paintings, screen prints, monotypes, photography, there’s a lot of new process and voice in this show at Rubber Factory. I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about how the transition from previous bodies of work and being a stricter photographer previously has been for you. How did it come about and why is it significant to you as an artist to be exploring these different mediums?
Pacifico Silano: I love the weight of still imagery and our complicated relationship to it. That said I was starting to feel like there was more I could be doing with my source material. A lot of my past projects have involved some form of obscuring and tearing images and so I was craving more physicality in my work.
I got a key holder residency at the Lower East Side Printshop and it was a transformative experience. I had never struggled and failed that much in art making before. I felt completely out of my depth. All of a sudden I was learning a whole new medium and things weren't coming to me as easily as photography. I would leave the studio feeling awful about myself and the monstrosity I had just created. It took me awhile to figure it all out but eventually I found a rhythm. I learned a lot about myself in the process.
This project is about obsession and I wanted to employ these different mediums to convey that theme. It's a first time balancing all of these different mediums but it felt important to challenge myself and try something new.
EZM: I’m attracted to the word obsession. It’s something that’s in the process of your making, but also reflected in the subject matter and, maybe not so obviously, our current state of politics and reality. You’re not quiet at all in regards to advocacy, which is a strength in my mind.
The show allows us to reflect on the celebrity of John F. Kennedy Jr. If it’s not too obvious to ask do you think that your posing the question of what politics and celebrity could look like given what we’re currently seeing all over the world, in particular the United States?
PS: I was very much thinking about political capital and celebrity while making this work. The two are now intertwined and nothing will ever be the same. I read an article the day after the 2016 presidential election suggesting that Caroline Kennedy would be running for president in 2020. We weren't even 48 hours into a shocking election outcome and the media was already looking for a familiar name that people could latch on to. The comfort that name recognition brings us is bizarre and fascinating.
EZM: It’s interesting to me the ideas surrounding the functionality of celebrity and politics. I think there are a lot of significant consequences of these things interacting with one another.
Do you find there are some significant biases or internalized desires using John F. Kennedy Jr. as a symbol of what could have been? Or are there similar dangers allowing someone who already exists in modern culture to lead as the president of a country?
PS: Growing up in the 90s there was always this talk that JFK Jr. would follow in his father's footsteps and run for president. In countless interviews the question always came up and he always said no. It was an answer nobody was ever satisfied with. Being a Kennedy predetermined these high expectations imposed on him. I was intrigued by this obsession of concentrating power to specific family names as a means of creating American royalty. It's something we continuously perpetuated through media.
The country has an emotional attachment to this family that even after all these years still hasn't faded.
When we see what a slob Donald Trump looks like sitting next to Justin Trudeau and the countless memes that follow it reminds me that we still want attractive, thoughtful people to lead us.
EZM: This intrigue into name is also something that I thought about a lot with George W. Bush. It's strange to see how the presidency becomes this name game or about the legacy of a family.
I'm curious about the source materials for the work in your show John, John. Previously you've appropriated pornography magazines and queer literature. What kind of sources were you using for this body of work?
PS: Whatever I could get my hands on.
A majority of the source material comes from vintage tabloids, many of which I read as a child! I was really into trash at a young age.
I was able to purchase an original negative and copy right transfer from the estate of a paparazzi photographer.
There's also a large silkscreen collage piece made from scans of a commemorative coin worth $10 from Liberia. I thought it was pretty wild to see his face on currency in another country.
EZM: That's interesting. Can you tell me a little more about the commemorative coin? Looking through the show that piece really stands out, it's quite graphic and unusual.
PS: The coin was produced in 2000 shortly after his death. America had one as well but he looked more like Eddie Munster. And that reminds me of Paul Ryan so that's a NO.
I silkscreened the coin 38 times on 2 large sheets of paper to commemorate the age he was when he died.
EZM: Liberia also minted a John F. Kennedy Jr. 5 dollar coin, as well as a 10-dollar coin featuring both him and his father (John F. Kennedy) in 1999. Any idea why this country chose to commemorate him?
PS: My best guess is that some people saw an opportunity to profit off of his death by making a "collectors" item. There is a whole industry that exploits the death of iconic figures by assigning a monetary value to plates, mugs, coins, etc. Shortly after Princess Diana died there was a special edition Beanie Baby in her honor worth thousands of dollars. You can purchase one on ebay for $1 now.
EZM: Good god it's a funny world we live in.
I'd love to back track to something you said at the beginning. You mentioned that a lot of these new works and processes provided you with a lot of new challenges. You mentioned that you learned a lot about yourself in the process. Would you mind sharing some of what you've realized about yourself through this work?
PS: I learned to chill the fuck out. I used to be very wound tight in my art practice. Things always had to be exact. But when you're silkscreening a 30"x40" by yourself onto canvas there is a level of spontaneity. I can't control every aspect like photography. Embracing imperfections and freeing myself up is something I'll be thinking about more for future projects.
EZM: Any thoughts on future projects? It may be crazy early to be asking that but can you give us a tease?
PS: I'm still working on some more JFK Jr. stuff in preparation for a show called "Fantasy America" opening at The Andy Warhol Museum in 2020. But I'm never satisfied and always thinking of something new to work on. So I'm already thinking of ways to continue to use all of these new mediums together.
EZM: Looking forward to ALL of that!
This question may be a little out of left field, but if you could have one thing in the world what would it be?
PS: Accountability. People in positions of power get to say and do insane, offensive and harmful things everyday with no actual consequences. It's headline news for a day then onto the next awful thing.
EZM: I think that concludes our broadcast date. Thanks so much for chatting Pacifico. The show at Rubber Factory gallery is absolutely beautiful, not to be missed!
To see more of Pacifico Silano’s work click here.