This review originally appeared on Artforum.com
Louis Fratino’s paintings here evince a tenderness often excluded from portrayals of gay male desire. Although frequently graphic and enamored of the male body, they eschew a Grindr-marketplace aesthetic. Indistinguishable save for a few recurring tattoos, their subjects, when coupled, are a tangle of limbs. For instance, in Early Spring, 2019, a scene of penetration is rendered as a Cubist jumble of flesh, while I keep my treasure in my ass, 2019, features a man gripping his own ankles as a smaller man is either being birthed from or swallowed up by his asshole. Here, ardor runs the gamut from fertile to consumptive.
Fratino’s oils are alternately monumental and diminutive in scale, some even painted inside box lids. The viewer is always either stepping back to take them all in or leaning in close enough to breathe on the work. This dance of distance and intimacy is mirrored in Fratino’s paintings, whether his subjects are gathered in a club (Metropolitan, 2019), trysting (Me and Ray, 2018), or alone in bed, enjoying a reverie (Yellow Sleeper, 2019). In Manhattan Bridge, 2019, a man walking his dog along a desolate bank of the East River is illuminated by street lamps, moonlight, and—brightest of all—the glow of a phone screen.
This digital index, along with the works’ unabashedly gay content, resituate the artist’s otherwise modernist paintings in a contemporary context. Although acutely following the tradition of artists like Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall, Fratino’s canvases are neither derivative nor pastiche. Rather, in a stroke of generative revisionism, the works here inscribe the straight art-historical canon with the prosaic and intimate junctions of gay life today.