The artist Pacifico Silano has boxes and boxes of vintage gay erotica — he thinks he has around 300 magazines. He has owned some of it for a decade, dating back to his time at the School of Visual Arts, when he started his practice of incorporating them into collages. Right now, however, the whole collection is literally in a closet — though sometimes it’s a storage unit.
These days, Silano buys the magazines primarily online. Often, he has to judge the book by its cover, but he’s gotten used to knowing which kinds of publications will likely have the kinds of images he’ll be able to use. He may pay $50 for a single issue, for a single image; he buys in bulk if there’s a specific issue he’s been looking for. “Sometimes,” Silano said, “you get really lucky and there’ll be three or four images from a publication. And sometimes, you won’t get anything. But then, in three years, you’ll look through it again, and see something you haven’t seen.”
Silano makes his images solely from these magazines: The wide desert vistas and raging rivers seen in his collages come from the same publications that the naked men do. “It’s important everything is coming from the same source material,” he said. His work is always about the gay male existence and society’s perception of masculine identity. It’s also about “loss and longing,” as he put it, referencing his uncle who was gay and died from AIDS, and who was erased from the family. That’s why Silano’s work is more about what is obscured from view — not just that the penises are always eliminated from his work, but the men in the photos who may have died from AIDS as well. Appropriation should ultimately be about transformation: “If I just scan the photograph of the nude body,” Silano said, “then how is that different from the initial source?”
The initial edit happens in Silano’s head: As he flicks through the pages, and finds an image he likes, he goes back through his memory to find another that goes well with it, then layers them physically on top of each other. He repeats the process with several magazines and images until he’s happy with the layout, then sets up his camera on a stand and takes a picture of it. He never scans his photos in, preferring to shoot them to capture extra shadows and uneven lighting that may creep in. The resulting image gets filed into an archive in his computer, and he’ll try to make another image that corresponds with it. His archives are organized by theme: “Western landscapes,” “cowboys,” “bikers,” “pools,” and so on.
The photos, like the images they originally came from, stay stored away as Silano ruminates on them. He decides which ones get their own breathing room and which might get placed together to form a tableau. Some come to life in both iterations. He then opens up Photoshop and might play more with cropping and zooming — blowing up a staple or zooming into a page tear to really show the fraying paper fibers. He zooms in and out, “really looking at the surface.” When he thinks the new layout looks good, he prints it out in a 16-by-20-inch format to see how it looks. The artist likes to see how the image holds up once it’s a tangible entity — this is when he can tell if a work will sink or swim. He may get back on Photoshop at this stage. Finally, he gets the final image printed out on vinyl, trims them by hand, and has them framed. By the time the image makes it onto the wall, it’s already in its third incarnation, at least.
Silano has recently started making prints that are as large as he is. He made the jump to larger format in his 2019 solo show at the Bronx Museum for the Arts. “It really makes you reconsider the readings of the photographs because they’re mural size,” he said. It goes back to how he was inspired by floor-to-ceiling paintings as a young artist (he went into photography because he couldn’t paint). These larger formats take up space, not just literally, but also metaphorically, which contrasts with its original purpose. “This imagery was meant to be looked at, [then] discarded, hidden under a dirty mattress,” Silano said, “not to see the light of day.”
His source material was, after all, taken with a specific endpoint in mind — “a carnal desire,” as the artist put it. That’s why he finds joy in looking at the landscapes captured by the original photographers or in finding a lone cowboy hat in the background of a double-page spread of an orgy. “I take these really quiet moments you’re not supposed to be thinking about, blow them up. and infuse them with metaphor and meaning,” he said.
By expanding these little details, Silano also makes the viewer focus on the materiality of the pages. In the larger works, the dot matrices become visible, and the dog-eared folds look less crisp. Sometimes, if he has duplicates that have aged differently — whether by oxidisation or literal wear-and-tear — he places the same page next to itself. He tries not to change the pages themselves any more, as he did when he was a student. The turning point came after he worked in New York University’s Fales Library, where he was forced to make his collages without a blade. “There’s a sensitive gesture of gently laying something on top of another,” Silano said.
He doesn’t lay pages to cover his “models” up out of prudishness. In fact, he worked in his parents’ sex shop (called “Undercover Pleasures”) in his teens. The artist is looking to find more meaning beyond a dick pic. “There are a lot of people who think appropriation is easy,” he said, “that you just take a photo and it’s done.” But Silano is instead looking for reinterpretation, finding new ways for these images that originated as pornography to connect to our contemporary world.