PRINT March 2021

Openings: Louis Fratino

Louis Fratino, The Sleepers, 2020, oil on canvas, 65 × 95".

BEGIN AT THE BOTTOM, with the ankle. That region where the foot and the leg meet, and where a bony architecture of joints and ligatures is bound together, bulb-shaped, gorgeous, and implicative. A confessional form. Begin there, with Louis Fratino’s work, in a piece titled The Sleepers, 2020, from last year’s late-fall show at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. in New York featuring twenty paintings—diary-like—of the male body in repose, of shallow interiors and modernist-inflected landscapes, most of which are set, as the exhibition’s title indicates, in the morning. In The Sleepers—which happens to be the first painting Fratino worked on for “Morning”—two men are naked and entangled. A euphoric stupor. They are only half-covered by the blanket that wraps around them the way a parachute’s materials touch down, wilting and lovely. Their tubular legs are exposed, their feet abstracted, calling up Georgia O’Keeffe’s rolled morphology and the curved, Southwestern harmonies of her desert mountains and calla lilies. The ankle is the painting’s vibrational center, for this viewer at least. Its sensual line and crescent swell, announcing the twenty-seven-year-old artist’s preoccupation not with undress but with ephemeral movements and pleasing comforts, like the cool relief of poking your feet outside the covers first thing or the brief magnanimous splendor of daybreak.

Louis Fratino, Morning, 2020, oil on canvas, 92 × 72".

Fratino’s moony eye for the erotic is trained on details that rouse otherwise mundane prospects. In Morning, 2020, the lushness of a Brooklyn backyard—aflame with exothermic greens and yellows—reveals a table, perhaps for two, recently abandoned. Spoons rest on the lips of bowls, while nearby, a single cherry tomato dangles on its stem. Elsewhere, the twining habits of morning glories, purple and in full bloom, are likely soon to curl. My Meal, 2019, which features two eggs on toast as well as other quotidian clues lyrically scattered on a round tabletop, discombobulates scale in its ode to the Cubist tableau-objet. A pair of lead pencils are pressingly tactile: thickset, urging you to grip. Not necessarily comic, though it does bring a smile, doesn’t it? To picture yourself holding a pencil that way, with your fist, completely wrong.

Louis Fratino, My Meal, 2019, oil on canvas, 43 × 47".

In Waking up first, hard morning light, 2020, a windowsill’s threshold delivers the plainest dawn and the quiet sanctuary of beginning one’s day deferred, lying beside a handsome naked man while he sleeps. His lips, his lids, and the sweep of his brow. His head cradled by a pillow. His omphalic swirl of hairs; his outie. A small dog also shares the bed, peacefully and perhaps victoriously. Fratino’s soporific browns and tawny ochers are reverberant—plenty yet wanting. Like infinity, like the muse, like the glory of those spare morning z’s. If anything firm can be said about Fratino’s nascent, six-or-so-year-old practice, it’s how the artist’s soldering gaze fuses soft power with decelerated, beautiful immediacy. To be enjoyed longingly. To be enjoyed guardedly.

Louis Fratino, Waking up first, hard morning light, 2020, oil on canvas, 90 × 70".

Polaroids on the kitchen counter, 2020, brings to mind the termite code of Manny Farber’s overhead still-life paintings. A whole hamlet of things resides here: Fratino’s grandmother’s ceramics, a stone mortar and pestle, a dishcloth patterned with white rabbits, a perfectly ripe banana. The disclosing nature of stuff, both strewn and settled, plucks from the domestic a feel for tenanted play. Like Farber, Fratino is faithful to deep living that sings low—rhapsodizing aperçu (thick, quick brushstrokes) and observant, just care (the shy bearing of seashells or tchotchkes; the agreeableness of a single orange). In Fratino’s work, tenderness and desire among gay men privilege not just lovers but a choreographed fantasia of the inanimate, recalling the conversational snapshot poignancy of James Schuyler’s poetry. Like two onions cheek to cheek. Anthurium stems tangled in a glass vase. A spontaneity of expression that occurs when the artist’s everyday materials are documented just as they are, and when ecstasy exists in the minor act of doing good on the terra-cotta fish, the giraffe figurine, the akimbo crab claws.

If anything firm can be said about Fratino’s practice, it’s how the artist’s soldering gaze fuses soft power with decelerated, beautiful immediacy.

Still, to itemize without plenary considerations is to extract a variety of charm dispossessed of greater significance. This type of gemlike wonder grows dull. The whole of Polaroids on the kitchen counter, like some kind of Braqueish pinball playfield, also recalls Farber’s film criticism, some of it published in these pages from 1967 to 1972. Farber the critic rarely wrote lengthwise. Meaning, his writing is magnificently fine-tuned to readers who drop in, his references to art (its history and techniques), photography, memory, and literature furnishing his texts with endless means of access. Farber’s art shares this quality. To quote Luc Sante (also writing in this magazine, in 2008), Farber’s paintings “give clear instructions to anyone perplexed as to the way to read the essays: You start anywhere and end up anywhere.” The same could be said about Fratino’s itinerant cataloguing of his daily life; his compass-free inventiveness, where details (the reflection in a faucet, an Alvin Baltrop book, the face in a club scene, the fragile nothing of a spider) might stagger viewers’ perceptions, even spook them, or disorient with an enchanted, Chagall-like flatness. Starting anywhere, as Sante notes, creates a feeling of endless looping and interplay, and we find this in Fratino’s work—sempiternal youthfulness with surprise detours.

Louis Fratino, Polaroids on the kitchen counter, 2020, oil on canvas, 60 × 60".

Last year, in a talk with the Brooklyn Rail, Fratino quoted the soft, albeit epiphanic, final lines of “Nostos,” a poem by Louise Glück: “We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.” According to Fratino, who was born in Annapolis and grew up near Chesapeake Bay, Glück’s dictum characterizes, and perhaps crystallizes, his relationship to light. “All summer light is Maryland light,” he said, referring to his paintings. With “Nostos,” Glück shows us another way of understanding memory and how it works. Hers is a retrograde version, where childhood is the incipient place. In Fratino’s case, Maryland light backdates “the rest.” In terms of light and shadows, childhood is the original plug to which he is attached—it’s his homecoming. And so. That’s Maryland light polishing a butt cheek. That’s Maryland light in Albisola. That’s Maryland light in the bathwater and on Tom’s two-week-old haircut. That’s Maryland light on the nude who wears his socks in bed. That’s Maryland light on Marsden Hartley’s influence; on white tulips drooping; on pinched sheets; on the cherry tomato. That’s Maryland light on a hilltop, even if it’s not, because this estimate—of light, but also of heritage—nourishes the artist’s generative arrival, which only exists so long as beginnings, like a grandmother’s ceramics, are spoken of. Maryland light, before all else, is fixed. Like morning, it’s Fratino’s first thing.

Durga Chew-Bose is a writer and editor living in Montreal.