Thursday Spotlight: Louis Fratino, Embracing Tenderness
Louis Fratino’s Long Island City studio is part of the Artha Project artist residency program. Among the others in the shared studio space, I am quickly drawn to a long wall jeweled with multiple small paintings that hold snapshots of moments shared between Louis and those close to him. A gentle stretch from an inversion, a simple sip from a cup, two figures nuzzling in bed, the paintings bolster warmth, solidarity, and peacefulness. His works are clearly intimate in both scale and subject. Each supple figure is cradled safely in its tight frame, yielding both tenderness and eroticism. His painting in progress hangs in the center of a paint speckled circle, warmly haloed by the brush strokes of preceding works. There is an intuitive desire to squeeze the juicy feet and bellies of his adoring figures. The dry and waxy rendering of paint invite a closer look into his inventive mark making techniques that create a diverse textural surface.
Greenpointers: When were you first exposed to art as a child?
Louis Fratino: My first experience with art was probably my amazement with various illustrations in children’s books as a kid. I used to hoard books and try to figure out how they could make the character look the same on each page. I made my own versions of books as a kid. We also lived not so far from Washington D.C., so I was able to go to the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art which was incredible. I always really loved drawing and don’t remember having a defining moment of figuring that out. It was just always something that I did. I would go through multiple reams of printer paper in a weekend. Eventually my parents noticed and heard from my teachers that I was very interested in art. I took art classes in high school where we had a very robust program. The art room was in the old gymnasium where six or seven people could be working on easels at one time. I have always made work about relationships and intimacy and love. In high school I was making paintings about my siblings, and when I was in a relationship I started painting the person I was with.
Louis: I decided I wanted to study painting my freshman year of college. I was trying to entertain the idea of a dual degree in illustration right up until graduation. I made a manuscript for a children’s book and had done some editorial pieces. I decided it wouldn’t be possible to go all the way and do both at the same time. There are tons of artists who make publications and do things outside of painting when they’re older that I want to do, but I think right now it just demands too much to try to build both of those careers. Illustration in a way feels harder to me sometimes because you don’t get to just generate your own material. And maybe that’s why I’m ultimately a painter.
Louis grew up in Tracys Landing, Maryland. During Summer 2014 he attended the Yale Norfolk Summer School of Art. He studied at Maryland Institute College of Art and graduated with a BFA in Painting in 2015. After college, Fratino was invited to a Fulbright Research Fellowship and painted in Berlin, Germany through 2016. After, he moved to Greenpoint and has been painting in his LIC studio since. Louis has had an exciting year, participating in two solo exhibitions at Monya Rowe Gallery and Thierry Goldberg Gallery, and many group exhibitions.
GP: I’ve noticed you use paint with a variety of drawing mediums such as oils, waxes, and graphite. This adds to the richness of your surfaces. Could you walk me through what your ideal surface would be?
LF: A lot of my paintings end up having a really thirsty and waxy surface where the oil paint mimics paper in a way. When I make a mark, it gets absorbed immediately, and the wax from the different drawing materials I use can be blended easily into the paint. I want to have a balance between the mess of the materials I use and the very fine lines I create from scratching. I want to create a surface that can accommodate both of those things.
Drawing is a big part of my practice too. I draw all the time in the studio to generate the subject matter you see. I also use a lot of wax china markers and other cheap drawing materials. I like to limit what I have in the studio as a way to surprise myself and not be in control as much. I don’t know if I’ve found my ideal surface yet necessarily. I try to change it for each painting to find something distinct or specific in the surface to focus on.
GP: Do you spend time drawing before starting a piece? How do you normally plan for new work?
LF: Each of the paintings I make have a drawing that correlates with them, either as a loose drawing or in a sketch book. I’ve been making loose drawings more recently over the past few months as something to do in between paintings. I think drawing is the most important part of my practice. As an artist it is one of the first things you learn to do, and it’s still what I am most excited about doing. Most of my drawings lead my paintings where they go in a way. I find new subject matter and new mark making methods though my drawings. It’s an immediate process for me where I feel very comfortable. I make between 5-10 drawings a day, no larger than a standard sheet of printer paper. Sometimes in the sketchbook I work at a much smaller scale, but I don’t work much bigger than this. It’s very important that this process is not self-conscious where I don’t necessarily care what the final product is. If I were to work at a larger scale I would tighten up, and then I would just be making a painting again. I make a lot of the drawings at home as a way to relax.
GP: Figures are central to you work and you have a definitive way of stylizing their features. Why do certain features appear more exaggerated than others?
LF: This primarily comes from my interest in the way the figure has been stylized throughout art history. Picasso and Matisse and their influences such as African and Greek art have influenced me a lot. I think it mainly comes out of those traditions. My stylization focuses on parts of the body that interest me. I want to give a lot of room to the hand which is such an elegant and strange feature. Feet too, which are so strange but can also be very erotic. I don’t have an exact formula, but I try to fit the figures into the composition in a process that happens really naturally. I want them to fill up the frame and feel like they live in there very comfortably. Instead of saying, “oh, well proportionally the foot wouldn’t fit here so we are not going to be able to enjoy that foot”, how about we just make the foot the size of a pea and still have it in there! I want the work to be playful, and I think it gives it a bit of humor to make the body sort of strange. My drawings play a huge role in this process. I draw very immediately and loosely, and sometimes I’ll make surprising decisions about body proportions that I transfer into the paintings.
GP: How does this add to the intimacy of the work?
LF: I think painting for me is very sensual. It’s a weird word to describe the process, but I think about what a memory sounds like, smells like, and looks like. I respond to certain parts of the body through my senses, too. Trying to be specific to that memory or that focus on a feeling does create intimacy, or a more believable intimacy. Touch also creates intimacy in my paintings when I highlight moments where two bodies are touching each other or people are touching themselves in certain ways. It’s fun to create realistic situations with very stylized bodies. It’s a way to focus on a moment or a feeling without having to make it completely realistic. If you have a specific feeling of pressing your face against some else’s, it becomes real all of a sudden. That’s what is realistic about my paintings, and maybe wouldn’t be achievable if you were trying to paint realistically.
GP: Color in your work sometimes plays an emotional role and other times it can be used to create emphasis in a playful manner. When you start a painting, how do you decide on color?
LF: I think color is very intuitive for me. I read an article by the artist Stanley Whitney earlier this year about subject matter. He said that you are born with your subject matter, much like you are with your parents in a certain way. I feel the same way about color. I feel that color is something that happens to you, and is influenced by where you grew up, what you care about, and what you notice in the world. It becomes a part of who you are. For me, I don’t premix or strategize about color before starting a painting. A lot of times I lay down one color without even knowing what the subject matter will be. Sometimes this is a way into the painting for me, or a way of finding what the paintings will be about.
You can create realistic forms through color. The color changes as it moves across different planes. For me, it’s more fun to be extreme about color when I’m painting. I have the warms where the light is hitting a figure and the cools where there are shadows. Instead of mixing very nuanced or realistic colors for skin, I just respond to what I feel looks good together. I’ve also been looking at lot at Howard Hodgkin paintings. I want to have a relationship with gay artists from the past. He is such an amazing colorist and came up with really inventive color systems and application processes. Although I work fairly intuitively, I also try to pull from his really amazing and strong color gradients.
Color also creates a friction between very charming and playful imagery and sexually explicit imagery. I feel like this moment in art history for gay artists is really unique in that imagery of gay couples is becoming mainstream in a way. Artists like Hodgkin are not necessarily even a part of gay art history, even though they were gay. I think there were pressures from that time to not make work about your gay life. Being an artist now who can be very open about my sexuality through my art, I am almost more interested in those painters like Hodgkin. Through my work I’m saying that my life is very approachable and very normal, and that I don’t feel like I’m on the outside when I’m having sex or when I identify as a gay man. It’s a way of saying that gay sex has room for intimacy and tenderness where a lot of the work made about it before had to be a lot louder just to say that this is happening, even though it is illegal and there is nothing you can do about it.
GP: How do you handle light in your paintings?
LF: I try to answer questions about the time of day in a painting to generate information about light. To me, light is also so much about mood. I think about very realistic considerations, like if it’s 3:00 am everything is going to be blue or green from the light, or if there is a bright moon how the figures will be illuminated. But with this also comes trying to replicate a feeling or an atmosphere that is recognizable but stylized within the paintings. If everything is yellow it could be because the sun is beating into the room and sharing its warmth, not specifically because it’s a really hot day.
GP: Your work explores facets of both realism and abstraction. How do you feel abstraction helps achieve your visual goals?
LF: I believe sometimes working with realism falls short of talking about an emotional state or a really specific feeling. I think people ultimately paint because they have fun with the material, and abstraction offers so much more than just trying to be completely realistic- like being able to play with surface, texture and color. I also have learned a lot about the handling of paint through abstraction. I look at a lot of Forrest Bess paintings. He was a kind of spiritual visionary outsider artist from Texas who made some amazing patterned work with strange shapes. I think you should always be looking at work that is different from what your inclinations are as an artist in order to grow. I make work that always has people in it, but looking at work that rarely does helps me be a better painter. One of my biggest influences in school was a painter named Jo Smail. She challenged me to look at abstract work, and I think I really benefited from that research and understanding of art history. I think it would be hard to find a painting that is only realistic or only abstract in most of art history.
GP: What are three things you are loving right now?
LF: 1. Donburi from the East Village Japanese restaurant called Raku.
- The Cloisters and the Palisades. The unicorn tapestries are just amazing, as well the relief carvings of faces carved into the columns.
- The fact that summer is over and it’s Fall!
To see his bright, bold pieces in person, here’s where you can catch him exhibiting:
- Jeff Bailey Gallery, Life’s Rich Pageant, October 14th-November 26th, Hudson, NY
- The Bermuda Project, CatCatDogDog, October 17th-November 27th, St. Louis, MO
- DC Moore Gallery, Embodiment, November 9th-December 22nd, New York, NY
- Galeria Mascota, group exhibition, November 9th, Mexico City, Mexico
- Galerie Antoine Levi, Louis Fratino solo exhibition, January, Paris, France