I wish my PrEP medication made me feel: An Interview with Nicolo Gentile

by Tannon Reckling

“I wish my PrEP medication made me feel like I was taking part in something, but so far it has only softened my bowels.” 

-Nicolo Gentile 

I first encountered Gentile’s work through online photos in 2021, when art spaces were still mostly closed because of the pandemic. The quote above, listed on Nicolo’s website, was articulated again during our visit. PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is medicine people at risk for HIV take to prevent getting HIV from sex or injection drug use, and more. There is an incredible body of work surrounding HIV/AIDS, which creates various connections between queerness, race, class, and capitalism, and which Gentile’s work is in conversation with. In this visit with Gentile, I think specifically of present HIV/AIDS healthcare failures in our intersecting COVID-19 pandemic. This lack of testing and treatment will be felt for years to come. As artist and ACT UP activist Gregg Bordowitz has warned us in his practice for decades, “THE AIDS CRISIS IS JUST BEGINNING.” I think of Gentile’s quote from above and where we might go from here in our intermingling arts spaces, and how we might be prepared to care for each other in the arts, or not.

For me, Gentile’s work conjures remembrances that honor and interrogate gay histories which are unkempt. After all, queerness in today’s epistemology came as a slur. A poetic articulation meant not to be direct, but to cause harm through a play of words; a true queer history would be (and is) censored quickly on Instagram. In 2022, I feel increasingly that queer visuals in the arts are declawed, too intellectualized, or #gatekept as a means of tokenization and larger intersectional oppression. This inter-queer discourse comes from lived experiences from the past few hellish years we’ve all experienced and joins larger conversations around power and institutional knowledges. Would a messier queerness use unarticulated, unformalized lived experiences as its primary guidance as opposed to privileged white academic leadership or social media economics to falsely claim shepardship? There are contradictory aspects and refusals in Gentile’s practice which feel urgent but that cannot and will not be formalized. Gentile’s work integrates a continuing LGBTQA+ art history, which cannot solely exist in any specific arts contexts or be wrapped up neatly for broader viewership as hard as it tries.

Tannon Reckling (TR): How did you find your way to Philly? Are there any particular experiences in Philadelphia that have influenced your practice so far?

Nicolo Gentile (NG): I moved to Philly to pursue a degree at Temple University, but this city has captured my attention well beyond the program. With a greater interest in archival and site-responsive work, I’ve turned to Philly for continued inspiration; to learn about local, regional queer histories within non-academic spaces. Understanding a place’s networked history weighs on my perspective.

Fallen Arches, 2019
Welded steel, rubber mat, plywood, enamel, c-clamp
96” x 60” x 18”

TR: Are there any materials that you have an ongoing attraction to in your practice? You seem to use a wide array in your practice.

NG: I have an attraction for coded and malleable materials and language. An adaptability or plasticity is of great importance, but I am also keen on a little pushback: some material resistance. But above all, the materials I am most attracted to hold contradictions. Leather, for instance, can be found across cultures of sport, kink, and fashion. It is prized for both its utilitarian application and luxuriousness while denounced for its ecological impact. It is often a symbol of masculinity, of ruggedness as well as sensuality and softness. Like much of my work, leather is never just one thing. I love the double-entendre as a form of queer abstraction. 

TR: What are some aspects of others’ practices that you look up to fondly? (rituals, routines, interactions, values, quirks, etc.)

NG: “Look up to” is all too kind. In reality, I have a deep envy for artists who work effortlessly with assemblage and the found object/image. There is an immediacy to the work that I find fascinating, powerful, and quite confident. Faith in the contextual shift. Perhaps I am wary that ‘reframing’ is a gesture enough on its own. I often find myself invested in a greater transformation, material or otherwise.

TR: What has been an interpretation of queerness in another aesthetic form that you have thought about often? A lot of your work engages larger archives or queer historical references or even everyday actions.

Column 1, 2015
Steel jack chain, automotive enamel, plywood, ceramic tile, leather
12 x 12 x 14 ft

NG: You know, I am admittedly a gym rat. What started as a simple act of self-care and attendance to my mental health has become an enriching subsection of my inspiration and a personal addiction. Its connection to, and influence of, my work’s subject matter (gender and masculinities, cruising and kink culture, body politics, etc.) continues to surprise me as my work uncovers the networks of value and power that influence it. 

I once found an image of an oiled Arnold Schwarzenegger bathed in sunlight standing on a balcony overlooking LA holding a positively beaming Donna Summers in his arms. It was such a simple image but felt so important, so nuanced, and so interdependent that it has stuck with me ever since. As an aspiration, maybe. Queerness and horizon. I should also admit that I am quite promiscuous in my application of theory and writing in my work. 

TR: Do you have a queer memory that has influenced your practice in a long-term way? 

NG: One of the most influential queer memories for my work is a series of memories, none of my own. For my publication Queer and Now, I interviewed dozens of individuals that identified as part of the LGBTQ+ community. Leathermen, ACT UP members, club kids. Adopting the form of 90’s porn magazine back pages, I framed their stories as anonymous personal ads to create an atemporal meditation of love and loss, belonging and isolation. Though these stories were not explicitly my own, they belong to a greater narrative and legacy that I feel personally connected to. Personal narrative does play a large part in my work, but my stories are only a part of this greater network of histories and are significantly contextualized by this network. 

Queer and Now | Issue 1, 2021
Offset lithograph on newsprint, polyethylene bag
45 x 36 x 4 in (9 x 12 in each)

TR: During a recent visit, we left off on a discussion around a sort of “conflicting, messy queerness.” We articulated issues with queer censoring on social media as well as current-day institutional discrimination. How is this manifesting in your practice and research? 

NG: Never before have I felt that queerness is so subjected to the politics of “rightness” and success. It was once prized, or known, for its failure. Its constant state of failure. I find one of my favorite strategies in my work is to set up a system, be it a system of logic, of aesthetics, or of signifiers, and allow them to just duke it out. Is it possible to both glorify and destroy an image? A symbol? To be simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by something? 

In my newest series, I am beginning to explore the candle as a form of transformation, commemoration and destruction. In Drop My Body, a dejected leather jacket lays on the ground, but upon closer inspection, one can see burning wicks have begun to bore through the wax object. The jacket is at once both a ritualized commemoration of loss, of radicality, of belonging, and a destruction of a symbol with a conflicting history. The jacket is destroyed, liberated even by this transformation. Maybe transformed by its destruction. The tight, cool, sleek object now lies puddled, fluid and pouring. 

Drop My Body, 2021
Paraffin wax, cotton wicks, leather dye
32 x 28 x 4 in

TR: What keeps you motivated in your practice? 

NG: I ask myself this question often. Perhaps developing a deeper understanding of this ever-changing motivation is the motivation itself. Such a Sagittarian.

TR: What forms of queer abstraction out in the world are you finding particularly interesting in 2022? However that might manifest? 

NG: I am particularly invested in elements of (in)visibility and (il)legibility at this time. Also, the role that coding plays to simultaneously clarify and bemuse, attract and mislead, uphold and upend. One strategy of coding that holds my attention and has a great and campy legacy is the use of innuendo and double entendre. How do we say or express something inadvertently, but with precision and not ambiguousness? Is it only a quality of language; of the written or spoken word, or are material and form capable of the same duplicity or multiplicity? 

00:00:00, 2017
Cast plaster, acrylic on panel, graphite on mylar
24 x 48 x 4 in

TR: Are there particular flavors of queerness you might strongly align your own work with compared to another queer practice? 

NG: Ah, the flavor of queerness. Power out my mouth, bitter on my tongue, constricting down my throat. – Perhaps queerness should not be so palatable and easy to swallow.

Credit where credit is due. I am highly influenced by the work and writings of José Esteban Muñoz, Jacqueline Rhodes, and Svetlana Boym, among others, each writing from a different perspective on queer archival approaches, acts of remembrance and the double-edge of nostalgic longing. I am one to think that a 2022 context of queerness is beholden to its past, for better and for worse. With so much of that past untold or unavailable, my curiosity compels me to be conflicted and contradictory, both attentive and admonishing while pursuing this history. 

Nicolo Gentile (he/they) is an artist living and working in Philadelphia, PA. He received his Master of Fine Art in Sculpture at The Tyler School of Art and Architecture of Temple University and his undergraduate degree in General Fine Arts from the Pacific Northwest College of Art and the Victorian College of Art. His work has been exhibited nationally and internationally in Philadelphia, New York, Portland, Los Angeles, Paris, and Melbourne and has been collected by the Leather Archives and Museum, the John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives, and the Jordan Brand Collection. He currently teaches at the Tyler School of Art and has guest lectured at the Pacific Northwest College of Art and Portland State University. 

Tannon A Reckling (they/he) is a transdisciplinary artist, curator, and organizer living and working between the unceded lands of Kalapuya Ilihi and Lenapehoking. They received their MFA from the University of Oregon in 2021 and previously studied at the University of California- Los Angeles in 2017. They currently teach at Fleisher Art Memorial and work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They are interested in: tremulous digital materialisms, shadow labor, queer semiotics, and collaborating with queer artists. They hope you’re having a good day.