Louis Fratino lavishes art-historical quotations on doe-eyed, love-besotted young men in his jewel-like oil paintings with the same easy generosity as spring magnolias currently give off their perfume. In Come Softly to Me, Sikkema Jenkins’s first solo show with the 26-year-old artist, a modernist eclecticism underlies indolent repose and lustful embraces. The 25 paintings in the exhibition vary in size, from box lids to larger than life. Throughout them, summoned spirits of Picasso, O’Keeffe, Chagall, and others animate a story hitherto foreign to these masters of the last century: contemporary gay love.
On ViewSikkema Jenkins & Co.
April 18 – May 24, 2019
Two large panels on opposite walls of the main room, Kissing Couple (2019) and I keep my treasure in my ass (2019), clinch the show. The former depicts a couple in the midst of passion. The tattoo on the arm of the man on the bottom avers he is Fratino himself. The viewpoint, indulged from above, is cogent and unobstructed—the lovers’ hands and feet are positioned so that they only just touch the edges of the picture, demarcating the space of love within reach of their touch. Flowy outlines situate their supple, pearlescent flesh against a solid red background, punctuated by interlocking lips and drops of pre-ejaculate. Fratino makes the age-old impulse of geometrically abstracting the human body seem not a formalist inquiry but an emotional necessity: Eros melts form, propels its swift momentum. Across the room, I keep my treasure in my ass features another gigantic two-body scene, in which the artist blithely gives birth to himself (according to a recent interview) through his anus. A metaphor for the inception of his sexual and artistic identities, this painting, like others, foregrounds Fratino’s modernist bent. Curvilinear shorthands articulate undulating planes, sculpting the bodies and lending them palpable weight.
The curious combination of thematic explicitness and stylistic conservativeness in these paintings bookends the complex range of emotions they elicit. They mire me in an entanglement of adoration, identification, aspiration, and, perhaps, refrain and distrust. Many moments endear and scintillate, albeit through a highly codified modernist vocabulary. The figures’ youthful beauty and immaculate innocence insinuate the kind of slight estrangement associated with the spectral perfection of commodities—things that are generated by an established value system and thus automatically assume aesthetic value of their own. I like them immediately, yet cautiously. Lingering in between real sentimentality and stylized allure, Fratino’s figures pose effortlessly, more desirable than desirous. Skeptical as I may be of the emotional weight of these paintings, they eagerly pull me back in with flourishes of the brush and flashes of puerility and adorableness, charming, soliciting.
Two tiny oils on box lids, Blowjob and Moon (2019) and Summer Evening (2019), are precisely aligned on both sides of the entry to the back gallery, covertly playacting top and bottom. In Invitation (2019), Fratino pinches the entire shallow space toward the focal point of the pulled-up underwear, capturing the viewer in an interstice of seduction while the figure gazes out, knowingly. The young man lying nude on his stomach in January (2019) has one hand swirling into a pretty shell while the other extends towards the viewer a white flower: will you take it? It lures and interrogates us: will you join in this dream?
Despite this fetchingness, which occasionally tumbles over into vapidity, the show doesn’t lack poignant and memorable moments. Such is the case in My Meal (2019), in which the artist poetically juxtaposes traces of his daily life atop a round table: drawings, photographs, envelopes with fragments of sketches, vases of flowers, cups of beverages, a bowl of yogurt, and a receipt from Khim’s Millennial Market. Next to its quiet intimacy, Metropolitan (2019) depicts the most boisterous scene in the show and reasserts Fratino’s omnivorous revisionism. Drawing on Picasso’s Guernica, the mural-sized scene inside a gay nightclub depicts a Cubist field of blissful, swaying men, fringed by an intricate lineup of assorted footwear.
Come Softly to Me exemplifies a new relationship to modernism, one in which it is not a lineage to overturn but a powerful language that can be used to write new stories of previously marginalized groups. The revelation of Fratino is that such cooption is far from a simple formulaic operation. Rather, it is alchemy. Relying precariously on that felicitous union of content and form, it is a path strewn with dangers of becoming derivative or anemic. To navigate this difficult path and produce paintings with sustained formal and emotional force, Fratino has as guides his talent, sincerity, and ambition. I see them in Me (2019), the frontispiece of the exhibition, with the flickering reflection of the Chrysler Building added as a last touch onto the artist’s unwavering gaze.