Louis Fratino’s candid documentation of contemporary gay life has made the young, Brooklyn-based painter a rising star in the world of contemporary art. Frank and celebratory, Fratino’s work reflects a new generation of queer youth comfortable in exploring—and depicting—sexuality in the modern age.
With his recent solo exhibition, “Come Softly to Me,” having shown earlier this year at New York’s Sikkema Jenkins & Co. gallery, Fratino has established himself as a leading voice for a new generation of queer artists. With a style that incorporates Cubist and Modernist flourishes, the artist’s paintings are candid explorations of queer sexuality, switching between joyfully erotic and sublimely quotidian mise-en-scènes. Though sometimes fantastical, Fratino’s paintings are also a document of daily life, one in which social media, in particular, has come to define the contemporary queer experience. Here, he discusses the role such technology plays, the importance of queer activism, and the place of eroticism in his paintings.
Two Figures, 2018
Eroticism is a central theme throughout many of your works, including your most recent show, “Come Softly to Me,” at Sikkema Jenkins. In many ways, your work’s depictions of gay sexuality are celebratory: Gay sex, in your paintings, is less about shame than reveling in its joys and fleeting pleasures. It’s depiction of sex that marks an era, post-AIDS, post-fear of the perils of “hooking up.” Why does this subject play an important role in your images?
I do not think about erotic imagery as a particular subject, as something outside of daily life. I think our sexual nature influences most of the decisions we make. For me, my work is ultimately more about celebrating the everyday than it is about celebrating the spectacular or trying to find the spectacular in the everyday.
I enjoy a period of time where, as an American white gay man, my sexuality is not perceived as a threat in the way it has been for centuries. So, I think the celebratory quality found in my depictions of sex are a product of my fortunate circumstance.
The Manhattan Bridge, 2019
Your works also seem to depict a new reality for a generation of gay youth. In one of my favorite paintings, The Manhattan Bridge, a young man walks a dog at night, his face illuminated by the light of his mobile phone. Elsewhere, many of your smaller paintings evince the size and feel of a mobile device’s screen. How do you feel technology, especially through social media and hook-up apps, has shaped your perception of and experience within gay culture?
My presence and my work on Instagram has given me a visibility among gay and straight people alike that I did not really expect. I think that we have increasingly sophisticated access to each other’s private lives because of social media, which is not necessarily a bad thing because it is a new form of expression and communication. But I do not think it has changed the fact that many gay people, myself included, feel very isolated and lonely in New York City. I don’t use Grindr or Scruff because I do not want to at the moment, so I’m not sure how that affects my perception of gay culture.
Star Nude, 2019
In one of your paintings, I Keep My Treasure in My Ass, a young man holds his legs up while another man emerges from his anus. It’s equal parts Courbet’s The Origin of the World and a fantasy of male impregnation. What is the “treasure” that you refer to?
I have been reading Mario Mieli’s Towards a Gay Communism: Elements of a Homosexual Critique. “I keep my treasures in my ass” is a phrase from his text, which is a rallying cry for queer people to not accept assimilation as liberation and to use the power afforded to them by hegemonic society to further liberate all groups of people. I find this particularly urgent in my case because I represent the top of the food chain in terms of queer power. This image came into my mind as I read the phrase. I considered this image as one in which I look inward to find myself again, to come out again, and to consider myself alongside women. I wanted to make an image as provocative and as compassionate as Mieli’s voice.
Are the men in your images taken from your own life or are they ideals of them?
They are both, which is also how memory functions.
Margaret and Tom, Wednesday Morning, 2019
Switching tacks for a moment, what is the most beautiful part of a man’s body?
The hair on the back of the neck.
In many ways, you are documenting a new age of gay culture, but doing so via a medium of great symbolism—there is historicity that comes with painting in oils. Would you say, particularly in your larger canvases, that you find a monumentalism in the depictions of gay sex, of gay life, at play in your work?
I am afraid of the word monumental because what is so beautiful about queerness is that it offers a new way. Monumentalism makes me think of force, power, stepping-over-the-dead-body. I want my work to be odes to gay sex, poems, soft songs, etc., etc. Scale does bring the monumental into question, and I do make a large work. But I think painting is best when it melds opposites, a big small painting, a cramped but comfortable painting. The historical quality of my work is more concerned with legibility. I use the language of modernism which is legible to most people to say something, which is that tenderness is very important.
Eye Contact, 2019
Last question: What is so beautiful, so special, so joyous about the male form?
Ask my hormones!