Sex is everywhere and nowhere in the photographic work of Pacifico Silano. Take, for example, Violent Delights (2022), a black-and-white image of a shirtless man with shaggy hair who tightly clasps a rifle with one hand, while the other grabs something, or someone, below, just beyond the frame. This image, with its allusion to sex and thinly veiled parallel between the phallus and physical violence, is a key work in the artist’s new, two-part show in New York.
Titled “If You Gotta Hurt Somebody, Please Hurt Me,” the exhibition spans Fragment Gallery (through April 30th) and Rubber Factory (through May 8th). A conceptual lens-based photographer, Silano is becoming known for his practice that emphasizes the form and the frame of an image. In this new body of work, he interrogrates the line between desire and masochism, focusing on the rugged, hypermasculine archetype that long plagued gay pornographic magazines. Throughout this work, Silano uses what lies beyond the frame or goes unnoticed to lure our gaze towards the illicit sex acts that are cropped out. Ultimately, Silano does not direct us to fixate on the sex, but rather the violence that surrounds it and is inflicted on gay men.
The Open Road, 2022 © Pacifico Silano
It’s not possible to fully grasp the physical and conceptual depth of Silano’s works until you see them in person. He creates his work by photographing, rather than scanning, archival images that he culls from 20th-century gay erotica. He then makes further edits to those images in Photoshop, such as increasing the scale of the image to show the pixelated grain. In a 2020 visiting artist talk at the Yale School of Art, Silano explained his approach: “I don’t take pictures in real life because I feel that everything that I have wanted to say has been said, and that I am just finding ways to translate them.”
Throughout his work, Silano uses the formal qualities of photography to reinforce “the gutter”—a term taken from comic book scholarship to describe the empty space in between panels, which audiences often overlook. His works lead us to search for what’s been omitted. Images like Serviceman and Faded Glory (both 2022), for example, feature cropped male torsos that imply, but evade, what is just below the belt.
.. And It Felt Like A Kiss, 2022 © Pacifico Silano
The title of the exhibition is a lyric from “Please Hurt Me” (1962), a song by the 1960s Black girl-group The Crystals, which encapsulates the tension between desire and abuse that Silano harnesses. The slow, mellow tune finds lead singer La La Brooks afraid to let go of her abusive partner as she’d rather die than be alone; it romanticizes emotional neglect from the archetypal, hypermasculine male. In his works, Silano uses clichés of hypermasculinity to comment on how harmful representations of masculinity can be destructive to the self and others.
Violence shrouds Silano’s work. The viewer, especially those familiar with Silano’s previous photographs, may consider the violence in the aftermath of the HIV/AIDS crisis, which may have taken the lives of many of the men in those erotic magazines. This context is still applicable in “If You Gotta Hurt Somebody.” Silano’s use of absence forces audiences to consider what forms of violence were not represented around queer sexuality in the 20th century in relation to hypermasulinity. This work addresses violence that may be more intimately experienced, specifically from testosterone-heavy lovers who are lacking in sensitivity and care, as “Please Hurt Me” implies.
Often, Silano references submission—as both an act of service and forced subjugation. This becomes particularly clear through the titles of the works, like When I’m on My Knees, You’re How I Pray (2022). In it, we see only the image of a hairy chest, while its title suggests the act of fellatio. We’re led to focus on the tender upper torso and a necklace with a cross, reminding us of the shame and despair that drives people to prayer.
Cruiser, 2022 © Pacifico Silano
Silano’s appropriated images intentionally pull from representations of the American West. He connects the landscape with the portrayal of the rugged queer man in pornography, he explained in a 2020 visiting artist talk at the Yale School of Art. Silano compared the wild, tundra-like landscapes of queer pornography to the more domestic, enforced space of heterosexual porn, which reinforces gender roles and norms. However, as “If You Gotta Hurt Somebody” demonstrates, open landscapes do not imply freedom from violence.
In The Open Road (2022), one of the larger photographic layered pieces on view at Fragment Gallery, a blood splatter appears across a desert cacti landscape. It is a subtle detail that is almost lost upon first glance, as the droplets resemble the pixelation of the image. Once seen, however, the totality of the image becomes gruesome. What violent act led to such bloodshed?
Throughout the joint exhibitions, Silano surfaces unspeakable acts of violence connected to both queer visibility and desire, and leads us to find them, searching for what lies beyond and within each image. And the further we probe, the more pain we discover.