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Louis Fratino’s paintings are deeply cinematic. Not in their scale or high-definition, but in the intense and dreamy way that he fixates on his subjects. Like Barry Jenkins or Wong Kar-Wai, Fratino crafts wordless scenes that are saturated with color, making his subjects’ passionate inner lives glow around them like full-body halos. But where Jenkins and Wong frame these moments of immense tenderness as light seeping out from cracks in emotional armor, Fratino’s characters so fully inhabit their emotional states that the world of thoughtless violence and casual cruelty seems to dissolve around them.
In Come Softly to Me, his latest show at Sikkema Jenkins, Fratino creates a gorgeous psychoscape of New York City, where the energy of the city — what Joan Didion once called the “infinitely romantic notion…, the shining and perishable dream itself” — is mapped across the bodies of his unambiguously queer subjects in streaks of evocative color. In doing so, he conjures the romanticism of artists like Paul Cadmus, Jean Cocteau, and Yannis Tsarouchis, who elevated gay love to the cosmos, while moving away from a hyper-masculine ideal.
Taking its name from a 1959 doo-wop song by the Fleetwoods, Come Softly to Me announces the show’s lens and scope in its title: an invitation into Fratino’s gaze as hazy scenes drift into focus and unfold before him. He establishes this mode of looking and seeing in the first two paintings. The self-portrait “Me” is thrown into direct conversation with “Chrysler Building, Moon” by the glimmer in Fratino’s eye — the twinkling outline of the skyscraper itself.
Like Picasso, to whom Fratino is often compared, his work is in some degree a product of voyeurism. But where Picasso felt entitled to his subject’s image (especially if that subject was a woman), Fratino is redeemed by the sheer awe and wonder he expresses on the canvas, of the distance and intimacy that’s shared between painter and model. It’s in this way that ordinary moments take on breathtaking significance. Paintings like “Olive” and “Mom Trying On a Velvet Dress” capture their subjects in media res, but are so warmly rendered that each moment crystallizes over in pure feeling.
This approach extends to his more sexual work as well. Like Cocteau, Fratino’s male nudes are both stylized and naturalistic, caught in moments where their sexual personas open up a glimpse into their truest selves. The half-dressed “Tom” looks both relaxed and concerned as he lies in bed, while the naked “Jamie” is captured half-way between smirking and sleep adrift in blue sheets. “Me and Ray” is a snapshot of sweet, erotic friendship, while the clenched fist and open palm of “January” puts crushing vulnerability on stark display.
John Yau’s observation that Fratino “undoes Picasso” is absolutely correct and is on full display as he stacks and curves bodies into swooning complimentary forms. But his style also interfaces with more modern and experimental painters. The dreamily warped arm in “Yellow Sleeper” feels apiece with Nicole Eisenman’s cartoonish abstraction, while the shirtless hunk in “Bushwick” feels like a direct descendant of Marsden Hartley’s gorgeously boxy ( ) “Madawaska—Acadian Light-Heavy.”
But Come Softly to Me is less concerned with formal questions than it is with the ecstasy of catching headlong glimpses into alternate states of being and pursuing them into the light. In “The Williamsburg Bridge” a walking Fratino is set against a tense orange sunset fading into dusk, while further along the East River on “The Manhattan Bridge” the city glimmers all around Fratino as he checks his phone walking his dog. Both scan as ruminations on loneliness, but the latter felt life-affirming to me, proof that one’s existence can be as small and dazzling as any light seen across the water.
The moments that Fratino depicts are transitory and fleeting and would be lost if one did not look — moments that are either too quotidian to stick out or too scandalous for “community standards” on Instagram. He is among a number of young queer artists like, , , and , who visualize life unmediated by social media and unconcerned with what is algorithmically pleasing.
Fratino goes even further. A spiritual student of the Italian queer theorist, Mario Mieli, who argued for “the rediscovery of bodies and their fundamental communicative function, their polymorphous potential for love,” Louis Fratino looks out at the world with an open heart, with the firm belief that there remains much to be discovered.
Louis Fratino: Come Softly to Me continues at Sikkema Jenkins (530 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 24.