Louis Fratino is a young figurative oil painter who likes to draw, usually in ink, crayon, and oil stick. His scale ranges from miniature, done inside the lid of a cardboard box (3 1/2 by 3 1/2 inches) to very large (8 by 5 feet). He often places his subjects in a shallow space, where they are lounging about, nude. The subjects are young men, and Fratino is attentive to their skin, as well as their facial and body hair. For him, drawing and painting are ways of caressing the body, a sensuality embodied in waxy surfaces and incised lines.
While his imagery may be derived from photographs he has taken, the work is never flat and photographic, which is important. Fratino might start with a photograph, but he is not limited by it. This is because he knows how to situate a figure in space, something that the art world once thought of as old fashioned.
The shallow space and the figure or figures’s interactions within it become a space of charged intimacy, from the domestic to the erotic. Last summer, writing about a two-person show of Angela Dufresne and Fratino, I stated, “Louis Fratino […] undoes Picasso.” I think this continues to be the case, and the results, which are never less than interesting, are frequently more than that. For one thing, while Picasso celebrated the monstrous in his erotic scenes, Fratino embraces the tender and playful.
Fratino seems most inspired by Cubism’s shallow space and Picasso’s neo-classical style, bodies that have physical heft. As invested as he is in his gay subject matter, what heightens the work is the formal mastery of his stylized figures’ placement within space, however open or compressed.
One of the strongest paintings in his terrific debut show, Louis Fratino: Come Softly to Me, at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. (April 18–May 24, 2019), is “Kissing Couple” (2019). One naked man lies on top of another against a red ground. The figures are inverted, with the bottom man’s feet at the top of the painting and their lip-locked, kissing heads are near the bottom.
Fratino underscores the weight of one body atop another by pressing the bare soles of the bottom figure against the picture plane. This is the most obvious clue that the position of each figure is governed as much by the logic of the composition as by the couple’s shared moment. At the very top of the canvas, nestled within the crevice formed by the top man’s heart-shaped butt, we see the tip of the other man’s penis with an outlined drop of pre-ejaculate fluid just about to fall.
Aware of the visual tensions electrifying the border between two-dimensional planes and three-dimensional forms, Fratino makes the exploration of that dichotomy as much a part of his subject as his erotic friction.
Fratino’s subtle distortions of the figure underscore his charged imagery, with acute attention to armpit hair, chest hair, pubic hair, and the body’s physicality. But his subjects also include the top of the Chrysler building on a moonlit evening; a baby lying nude on a blue blanket; a young woman in a black dress pulling back a blue curtain; an angel writing a letter; and a round kitchen table tilted toward the picture plane, covered with a concatenation of breakfast items, art supplies, and photos that might be the inspiration for a painting.
Each of the paintings begins with drawing, as Fratino told Maggie Ehrlich in an interview on Greenpointers.com. The other way into a painting, he told Ehrlich, is through color. By remaining open to the possibilities suggested by both drawing and color, Fratino has opened a lot of space for himself. I think this is crucial; as accomplished as he already is, there is much more he can do. I don’t mean this solely in terms of subject — his growing mastery of his tools suggest that he is capable of expanding his work’s emotional registers and states of feeling.
That’s what struck me most about the paintings in this exhibition. He works in different scales, uses different palettes, and arrives at dissimilar conditions of poignancy. “The Manhattan Bridge” (2019) depicts a young man walking his dog in the waterside park, looking at his cell phone’s illuminated screen. The Manhattan Bridge is in the background. This is New York now, where a man walking alone at night can feel safe. It was not always this way. What could be a scene of loneliness and alienation is not. He has a dog as a companion and seems to be connected via his phone.
In another painting, “The Williamsburg Bridge” (2019), which is also a night scene, Fratino depicts a young man striding determinedly across the span of the bridge, his hands thrust into his pockets. His proportionally large head is seen in profile, surrounded by the sunset’s aura of fiery orange. While both “The Manhattan Bridge” and “The Williamsburg Bridge” picture a man alone at night, with a bridge as part of the scene, the paintings are very different in mood. The sunset indicates the young man’s interior weather, while the dog, his physical disposition, and the lit cell-phone conveys a very different state of affairs.
Not yet 30, Fratino has clearly hit his stride and is making tremendous work, though he doesn’t seem to have been swayed by the attention he has been receiving during the past couple of years. Whether he is painting on a human scale or inside the lid of a box, he is paying attention to detail as much as to subject matter, as he does on the far right of “Metropolitan” (2019), where a diminutive face peers through the negative space formed by the chins of two men kissing, which folds another emotional layer into this large, glowing, multi-figured painting.
If Fratino can stay open and pursue his own impulses, rather than stop and believe the praise, and possibly succumb to its capacity to freeze you into a stylistic stance, he stands a very good chance of being an important painter of his generation.
Louis Fratino: Come Softly to Me continues at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. (530 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 24.