For Louis Fratino, Painting Offers a More Permanent Kind of Pleasure
Last October, Louis Fratino achieved the unthinkable: He managed, in the midst of the pandemic, in spite of gallery attendance being at its all-time lowest, to put on a wildly popular, ecstatically received, career-defining solo show. The 20 oil paintings mounted at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. in New York were as exuberant, playful, and intimate as they were formally and technically riveting, a synthesis of personal style, unapologetic subject matter, and a winking retooling of modernist tropes (think neo-Cubism meets neo-Fauvism meets such radical American painting pioneers as Georgia O’Keeffe and Marsden Hartley).
Fratino is best known for his provocative male nudes, and the recent work didn’t disappoint in that regard. Populated with lithe, sexy young men—alone or in groups, in various contortions of sexual intercourse—the 27-year-old artist’s paintings fracture and bend perspective, fast-tracking the emotional connection of his subjects. In doing so, the pieces come across as highly erotic without ever feeling maudlin or lecherous; capturing, in concert, the cruisey, moody, poetic landscape of urban gay desire. And yet, it isn’t all just sex. His recent work has also delved further into still life—with a particular penchant for tables, those small communal spaces of gathering and sharing where meals are served and food prepared.
“I did what I consider to be my first nature painting, of my family eating dinner, at 19,” says Fratino, referring to a work that depicts him sitting with his parents and four siblings in his childhood home in Annapolis, Maryland. Fratino was in art school in Baltimore at the time and was missing home. “I think the concerns in that painting are still evident in my work today,” he says. After college, while on a Fulbright Scholarship in Berlin, Fratino spent a year honing his technique before moving to New York City (an intrepid gallerist spotted his work on Instagram and invited him to show on the Lower East Side in 2016). Even in the current cultural moment when identity politics and figurative art have reached a zenith, Fratino’s paintings seem to exist in their own floating, fantastical world, a purely authentic dinner table of sorts ruled by joy, relationships, and communal moments of intimacy and wonder.
Many of his male portraits are of his boyfriend, the sculptor Thomas Barger. For the past year, the two have shared a studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Fratino, who admits to working on about 20 paintings at the same time, enjoys the physical proximity: “I feel like I can stop and talk about a work with someone I trust.” While he tends not to work from live models or photography, many of the scenes he depicts are pulled directly from live experience. “Usually the personal narrative work is attached to a specific memory,” says Fratino, who is preparing his next show, slated for April, at Ciaccia Levi in Paris. “Sometimes things will happen to me that have a particular flavor that feels good for painting, such as a night spent on the roof, swimming nude at the Rockaways, smoking in the attic of a Milanese apartment—things I want to last longer than they can or will. Painting gives me a way to linger.”