(Above: Louis Fratino in his studio, courtesy of Jasmine Vojdani)
A lot has changed for Louis Fratino in the past year, and his autobiographical paintings are a case in point. In Come Softly to Me, the twenty-five-year-old artist’s second solo show in New York and first at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., Fratino’s work has absorbed the City, where he settled after a Fulbright Research Fellowship in Berlin. In “Me,” we see the Chrysler building reflected in his pupils; in “The Williamsburg Bridge,” we see him walking alone along the waterfront, the horizon on fire. Cocteau- and Matisse-inspired male odalisques lounge nude beside open windows, and same-sex couples embrace on dance floors, club-lit as if inside an ultramarine and cadmium-red kaleidoscope.
Fratino is best known for painting homosexual love in all its stages—desire, consummation, love, and loss—but elsewhere his work explores the intimacy of family in paintings featuring his mother and baby niece. Where his previous work evoked comfort and shared domestic spaces, you get the sense that Fratino has expanded his gaze outward in this show. To see the city through his eyes—to see him looking—feels like a gift.
A few weeks ago, with Fratino’s show in sight, we talked about his changing relationship to figures, to New York, and to his intimate source material.
If you had to describe your work right now, how would you describe it?
I make paintings of the people I love, from memory. I want to make work that is tender and generous and optimistic.
Your past work was very autobiographical. I’m wondering what has changed for you in the past six to nine months. How have those changes affected the work?
I went through a breakup, that’s the first thing that comes to mind. My position in the city changed a lot, where I was feeling like I had to go out into the city more, which I think crops up in the paintings. Now I’m painting myself crossing the bridge alone in the summer at night because I didn’t have anything to do and was desperately wanting something to happen to me. There were also the feelings of loneliness and anxiety and wanting to create a narrative for myself.
My work before the breakup showed very intimate scenes all in the same space, hitting the same emotional tone, about love and comfort. When I wasn’t in love anymore, it felt wrong to keep painting those paintings—it would feel like a parody because it’s not my reality anymore. So now I’m trying to expand the setting of my work. And that comes from external pressures too—this is my second solo show in the city, and knowing that no one will write the same review twice, I have to offer something that feels distinct.
Has this changed the way you represent sex in your work?
I think it was a challenge for me to represent sex outside of love. I thought I might be able to but I wasn’t. So I ended up making images of experiences I had that were full of affection.
What do you think is the most new, tonally distinct painting that you’ve made for the show?
The male birth! It’s me giving birth to myself. An obvious metaphor, but I’m okay with that. I feel like leaving my relationship was like a second coming out, where I had to reestablish myself sexually. And it also comes from thinking about myself in relationship to my family members as they have children and get married. So there’s this longing, identifying with the feminine but not being a woman is a weird thing gay men might deal with. It feels like an illustration of how I felt about this show, where I’m laboring to get myself out.
It’s about your ass too I think, as a forbidden part of your body that as a gay man you discover and you realize that’s where your power is. I’m reading Towards a Gay Communism by Mario Mieli, and that’s where the title for the painting comes from: “I keep my treasure in my ass.” It’s a subversive part of the body, a dangerous one to straight culture, because it’s where we shit and take pleasure from. I think I was trying to make a painting about an asshole that was spiritual, not just pornographic.
With that painting in particular, what emotion do you want to leave your viewer with?
A gay gasp. I want Roberta Smith to walk in and go *dainty gasp*!
It’s like shock and recognition—not provocative for the sake of being provocative, but to make different paintings tonally from the ones I was making a year ago. The miracle of painting is that you can make images that have never been made before, but people can still relate to them.
I’m curious about how you title a show and what goes into creating the concept behind it. The title of your last solo show in the city, So, I’ve Got You, was so conversational and inviting in a similar way to Come Softly to Me. What’s behind the title of this show?
“Come Softly to Me” is a song from the 50s by the Fleetwoods that has layers of men and women singing and feels like an ideal of love. But I feel like this show departs from that theme, so if people see the title and have my past work in mind, I think they’ll get to be surprised by the pieces that are actually exhibited.
It also sounded like what I want from my audience—for them to approach with some softness.
Why are you asking for that gentleness?
Cause I’m nervous! [Laughs] But I like that it refers to me while also acting as an invitation. Even though this isn’t my first solo show, and I did So, I’ve Got You in 2017, this feels like another debut, maybe a more mature one. The last one had mainly small paintings, and this time the scale of the work is bigger.
What show/music/place have you been excited about lately?
I listen to a lot of really gendered early country music, including where the title comes from, but I feel like it can be queer, a way of asserting queer Americanness in some way. I’ve been blasting “Stand by Your Man” by Tammy Wynette, and even as a young gay man I want to feel the kind of love that’s in the song. I’m also playing the new Weyes Blood album, Titanic Rising, on loop.
Also, Fleabag season 2.
I would love to know a bit about your process, especially as you create more and more work. How do you know, while working on a given painting, that you’re on the right track?
It’s interesting because it’s so not tied to language; I just have a feeling when I start a painting that it will work out. I draw a lot before I ever paint, most of my day is spent drawing, and so I’ll have an immediate attachment to a drawing that as a painting will become more developed and structured. The images are usually flashes of life that I can’t stop thinking about and that I want to get onto paper. But sometimes when I start painting my interest pivots, and a scene from sister’s wedding will become a bridge. And since it’s happening within my real life, conditions can change while I’m working on it.
How much of what a painting is giving you do you want a painting to give to your viewer? How are they different?
It feels most exciting to me when people get something from a painting that I didn’t know it contained. People respond to paintings in novel ways, and if they get something surprising out of it, it means I’m being specific enough for them to generate something personal from it.
How has your thinking about your painting changed since that French review you got?
They were saying that because a lot of the characters in my paintings are white and cis, I was a racist and transphobic painter, which felt really extreme. So all I can do is more confidently and specifically talk about my own experience. I made the male birth painting after I read that review.
And representation in painting isn’t about me telling other groups of people how I see them, it’s about making a space for us to identify with each other. We all experience love and loneliness, and I’d love for us to all meet in an image. As a white male cis artist, those problems will always be present in my work, but I don’t think I can solve those through every painting.
It poses interesting questions about the burden of being a painter.
I think this show demonstrates that I’m going to expand my work beyond having a boyfriend and living a comfortable life, but not in the way this critic wanted me to. But I’m mostly grateful for that review.
I agree that white guy artists shouldn’t really be our focus right now. Being a working artist is utter freedom, so I’m asking myself what I can do to share that freedom to help enable others to be more free. For now I’m trying to be as free as possible and to show others that it’s possible not to hold yourself back.
Come Softly to Me continues at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. (530 West 22nd Street, Manhattan) through May 24
All images courtesy the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co. except where noted otherwise