(Loose Joints Publishing, 2021)
American conceptual artist Pacifico Silano’s first artist book is a cipher—cut, cropped, and layered. Images of fragmented bodies and reframed scenes ground then disorient us in a past that is elusive yet somehow familiar and within reach. I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine—the title references a song by the 1960s girl group the Ronettes, produced by Phil Spector—continues Silano’s exploration of loss, loneliness, theatricality, and queer melancholy. The artist captures these intense feelings through the visual vocabulary of gay pulp—young, fit, male bodies clad in short shorts and tight tees. Those bodies are often seen lounging in leisurely yet sexually suggestive poses in a neutral setting, creating intriguing juxtapositions that reorient notions of desire and desirability, connectedness, and longing.
Taking the form of a 22-panel, sequenced, accordion book, I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine can be read as individual works or as a single unit of collage. The book, in which the images are printed on both sides of paper with varying heft, is probably best viewed by standing it up, end to end, and letting the pages unfurl in zigs and zags. It opens with a close-up of a closed eye, so relaxed, its owner might be sleeping. Viewers wind through a series of images of natural landscapes and sun washed skies paired with or set against disembodied limbs, like a forearm or a hand holding a mirror. In another image, the mostly obscured face of a brown skinned man whose upper body is draped in a crisp white jacket, except for a peek of his bare chest, somehow manages to focus on his eye, which meets our gaze as if Manet had created a modern version of Olympia. Another close-up of a face is paired with the grainy gray haze of the summer sun at noon; and in another a chiseled bicep is paired with two clementines, one with half of its peel nestled against the sitter’s skin. These juxtapositions act like a fever dream, Silano explains in the interview included in the publication, and allow the image sequences to evoke specific associations, such as the joyous exuberance at the first signs of summer, or the mild sadness as we notice it is coming to an end.
© Pacifico Silano 2021 courtesy Loose Joints
Silano uses the aesthetics of portraiture for the collages, presenting the subjects realistically. But his hyper-focus on one aspect of their physical body, such as an eye or a limb, allows viewers to focus on their common humanity rather than any assumptions or stereotypes one might make based on their clothing, gestures, or other context clues. In a further act of subversion, Silano chose images from 1970s gay porn magazines and reproduces them in a slightly changed form—enlarged with altered ratios, pixelated, and distorted. Eschewing the aesthetics of the fashion magazine or soft-core pornography, Silano’s images do not revel in the beauty of his subject’s form and avoid veering into the voyeuristic territory Robert Mapplethorpe is sometimes accused of inhabiting. Instead, Silano aligns more closely to the style of Alvin Baltrop, offering viewers a window into the sitters’ existence.
Silano’s subjects here are men, from country boy farmhand to beach bum and city dweller. For the artist, these collages act as surrogates for the personal. Familial memories of hidden histories, secrets, and erasure preoccupy the work, although Silano acknowledges that in re-presenting these images outside of their original context, viewers have an opportunity to imbue them with new and different meaning(s), too. In the interview, the artist shares that the death of his uncle from AIDS complications at the age of 36 always exists in the background of his artworks. His family never discussed the uncle’s sexuality or acknowledged it openly, despite their knowledge of his queerness, the family’s ownership of an adult novelty store, and Silano’s openness about his own queer identity. This use of collage and fragmentation underscores the dissonance and pain of unacknowledged full identities and stories.
While nostalgia and retro aesthetics are used throughout I Wish I Never Knew the Sunshine, Silano’s impetus to create a feeling for an imagined and idealized time that never really existed should not be taken as manipulative. So much of life for people who do not see themselves represented in the mainstream involves secret codes and a keen ability to switch between them. For LGBTQ+ people, clothing or personal grooming habits could be part of that secret code. Decoding these aesthetic signifiers then and now suggests that their meaning can serve as a bold embrace of life.
The Ronettes’s gravelly voiced singer Veronica “Ronnie” Spector’s style, in its natural—rather than classically trained—state, with her heavy New York accent, slyly thumbed its nose at 1960s pop conventions: slick production, close harmonies, respectability, polish. Although producer Phil Spector was notoriously controlling of the artists in his stable, and especially The Ronettes, Ronnie’s way of singing made the songs, which were written for the group rather than by them, uniquely their own. Although the lyrics of the chorus of “I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine” ooze with nostalgia for the good times of a once vibrant but now fading love affair, The Ronettes convey resilience rather than longing:
I wish I never saw the sunshine
I wish I never saw the sunshine
‘Cause if I never saw the sunshine, baby
Maybe I wouldn’t mind the rain
Much like the song, Silano’s I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine also doubles and triples its own material, uses non-traditional techniques, and relies on distortion to create an all-encompassing, visually sonic blend.