“Tell me I’m you National Anthem
Red, white, blue in the skies, summer’s in the air and baby, heaven’s in your eyes
I’m your National Anthem”
–Lana Del Rey “National Anthem”
After the dreamy crack of fireworks and a soar of cinematic strings, Lana Del Rey begins her lush love song “National Anthem” with the frank line: “Money is the anthem of success.” Celebrating the all-too-rich, beautiful and doomed, the corresponding 8-minute long video features Lana immersed in a Kennedy-esque Camelot fairytale with A$AP Rocky playing the JFK to Lana’s Jackie. As the duo picnic with their children and dogs on the lawn of their grand New England estate, there is the ominous sense that we exactly know how this will end–with Lana scrambling over the back of that fated convertible in Dallas. And it does.
With their dual affluent promise and tragedy, spanning generations, the Kennedys are a foundational modern American story, as inherent to our conception of the historical American identity as Washington, Jefferson or Lincoln. But, the American obsession with the Kennedys certainly didn’t end in the 1960s. In particular, JFK Jr. became the personification of the American dream and its near impossible attainability in the late 20th century. The seemingly endless fascination with John John acts as a mirror for what the American imaginary holds dear–he was masculine, he was rich, he was white and he was part of a famed dynasty.
Pacifico Silano’s current exhibition John John at Rubber Factory takes an in-depth look at this legacy of JFK Jr. With the colors red, white and blue pervading the Lower East Side gallery space, Silano’s show takes aim at more than just John John’s singular history as America’s prince. Instead, it questions the impact and enduring belief in American political royalty, the halcyon days of Camelot, and the myths we, as Americans, continue to crave.
With a mix of various artistic strategies from delicate monotype portraits to thematic photo collages and bold silkscreens, Silano examines America’s John John psychosis through imagery culled from vintage trashy tabloid magazines. Those of us who grew up in that era–the golden age of sleazy rags–probably remember sneaking a peak of John John’s all-American face on the cover of National Enquirer when accompanying our mother to the grocery store. I know I do.
By using the tabloids as his artistic source material, Silano’s work eerily reflects our fixation and fetishization of the President’s son. John John’s life was essentially made, taking a line from Lana’s “National Anthem,” “for this six page,” referencing New York Post‘s gossip-filled Page Six. John John was framed, narrated and interpreted by and for the press. Beginning with the chilling image of John John as a young child saluting his father’s casket, his entire identity was constructed within and by publicly accessible and easily purchasable photographs. As his former flame Sarah Jessica Parker noted, describing their dating life, he “was a public domain kind of guy.”
And as Americans, we knew everything about Kennedy–his childhood, his romances, his law school days, George Magazine and his untimely death. In fact, I vividly remember sitting on my parents’ couch at 14, watching the search for John John and his wife Carolyn Bessette’s bodies after their plane crash in 1999.
Silano makes this rabid American preoccupation with Kennedy visible by completely surrounding viewers with the face, body and image of John John. On one wall, JFK Jr. is juxtaposed by a photograph of his father, both reflecting youth and symbolic hope, while on another, Silano places an enormous silkscreen 38 Commemorative Coins, featuring a smattering of the late night TV-hocked tragedy-exploiting collectibles. In the center of the space, a video work Don’t Ever Leave Me projects a range of found footage of John John. Whether speaking to the press, lounging on the beach or running from paparazzi, John John’s image is ever-present and almost claustrophobically inescapable.
Created this year during a residency at the Lower East Side Printshop, Silano’s John John seems like a major departure from the artist’s previous series like Tear Sheets or Pages of A Blue Boy Magazine, in which he uses images from 1970s gay porn magazines to reference the generations of gay men lost to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. However, there are certainly some aesthetic similarities, namely in Silano’s photographic collages like Heartbreaker or The Good Son.
But, John John sees Silano really pushing the boundaries of the medium as seen in his installation Meet The Press, which combines two framed photographic works On the Job and Sunkissed, showing the frequently photographed icon, respectively, in his dapper business suit and shirtless on the beach. These two works lay on top of a vinyl, which features the lower half of Kennedy’s face surrounded by microphones. It’s a physical representation of Kennedy mania.
With so many press derived images of Kennedy, John John seems to pick up where Andy Warhol left off with his Jackie paintings, delving into celebrity, mythology, death and disaster. In his published diaries, Andy Warhol recalls unexpectedly running into Kennedy at a party on December 20, 1980: “I was taking pictures of this handsome kid I thought was a model and then I was embarrassed because it turned out to be JohnJohn Kennedy.”
Like Warhol’s unknown yearning after JFK Jr., Silano shows how Kennedy was consistently (homo)eroticized by the press. In particular, two paintings exemplify this countrywide Kennedy lust–Sexiest Kennedy (Red) and Sexiest Kennedy (Blue). An image of Kennedy in aviator sunglasses, bare-chested with just the right amount of chest hair, stands before a background of headlines reading “Sexiest Kennedy.” The word “Sexiest” is written in looped feminine cursive, while Kennedy is emblazoned in hard-lined, hard-edged and hard-bodied block letters. In these silkscreened paintings, John John, one of People’s Most Beautiful People, embodies the ideal of American masculinity–an Übermensch of the 1980s and 1990s.
And this fascination with Kennedy’s manhood seems especially relevant now–a time when we are seeing the underbelly of America, one that rose to power largely due to a perceived crisis in white American masculinity. As I’ve quoted elsewhere but bears repeating, Angela Nagle in her book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and The Alt-Right observes that the alt-right and its like are “characterized by a particularly dark preoccupation with thwarted or failed white Western masculinity as a grand metaphor.”
With the orange ratings machine inside the White House, consistently hitting new daily lows, it’s hard to look at the proliferation of John John images in Silano’s exhibition without fantasizing what could have been. What would have happen if John John’s plane reached its destination in 1999? Would we be waking up to John John as President rather than Twitter screeds? In many ways, the Trumps are the anti-Kennedys–the grifter’s Camelot. Sure, they still have wealth and an iconic family name, but they illustrate a bizarro version of the American political dynasty–one that is more Bluths than Kennedys.
In the back of Rubber Factory, Silano places four small text-based silkscreened paintings, ripped from gossip rag headlines. From “Hot Hunk” to “Prince Charming” to “The JFK We Never Knew,” these paintings further explore John John’s contextualization by the tacky tabloid press. However, one, in particular, seems especially prescient, reading “The Dream That Will Never Be.” Naturally, the headline was referring to John John’s death and shattered promise, but given our current political state, it could also signify America as a whole.
Like “The Dream That Will Never Be,” John John is a eulogy–for John John and for an America obtainable only in fantasy. In “National Anthem,” Lana croons about, “blurrin’ the lines between real and the fake,” and the Kennedy myth confuses these boundaries in the same way. Like Lana Americana, Camelot seems far away from the reality in which we live. But, was it ever real? Or maybe, it was only a dream.