Rising artists to watch: Louis Fratino

Stefano Pirovano  -  February 20, 2018

Louis Fratino is having his first solo exhibition outside the US at Antoine Levi, in Paris. The body of works he is presenting confirms his talent as a painter, so we tried to find out more about his artistic personality.

A common trait characterizes efficient artworks, independently from the media used by the artist, or the epoch and region they are from. We would call it expressiveness. Neuroscientists have proved that we all tend to respond the same way to images or objects having certain characteristics (Zeki, Ramachandran); but artists have never been interested in producing images aimed at giving mere aesthetic pleasure to the beholder’s eye; the best among them prefer to consider visual pleasure a tool rather than a target. As a matter of fact artists have always been spending most of their time trying to express something they feel about themselves and their environment (including other human beings), or about a specific piece of information (including the denial of expressiveness itself). Broadly speaking, the degree of success of a specific work of art depends on its capability of recreating in the viewer’s mind those same feelings, or at least similar ones. Expressiveness seems to be the best way to access also Louis Fratino’s painting, whose current solo exhibition at Antoine Levi gallery in Paris reaffirmed to be a very efficient one.

Fratino was born 24 years ago in Maryland, where he studied painting and illustration at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. After a year spent in Berlin thanks to the help of the Fulbright Research Fellowship in Painting (he obtained it in 2015) he moved back to New York, where he currently lives and works. Baltimore is mostly known to the art people for hosting the largest holding of works in the world by Henry Matisse (at the Baltimore Museum of Modern Art) and for being John Waters’ favourite stage and social playground. ‘Of course I know John Waters – said Fratino to CFA in a recent conversation – but not personally. I would like to meet him’. Apparently Waters and Fratino share the same interest for ordinary people, but while Waters turns them into ethical heroes (or ‘Role Models’), Fratino seems to be more interested in enquiring into their relationships and what may affect them.

Did the environment, in this case Paris, influence your new body of works? Antoine Levi told us that after you visited some museums in the city you slightly changed some of your paintings.

Yes, it did. In particular, I made one painting which is directly related to a painting I saw at the Centre Pompidou. I think painting is always about re-interpreting, or recycling, something you’ve seen before. In my case, specifically, I’d like to borrow composition or subject matter from Modernism, Picasso or Matisse but re-imagining the figures as people I know intimately. There was a painting of a woman which I’ve reinterpreted as a male figure. Also, I used lines and soft pastel on the linen, without any paint, for the first time while I was there. For instance, the super large scale paintings are all pastel. It’s cool to be in the city where a lot of the works I am heavily influenced by have been made. And making some of the paintings here was a sort of surreal and very romantic experience.

It seems that your models, male and female, are bond to establish sophisticated dialogues with the past of the art history. Let’s take, for instance, your young man in the bathtub and Pierre Bonnard’s notorious series of paintings of his wife.

One of the most exciting thing of being a painter is that you can talk through time, and travel in a certain way through artworks. I feel you can develop a very intimate human connections with people who lived hundred of years ago because of the quality of the artworks or of what they have accomplished.

How do you select the subject-matter of a painting?

I don’t really know if I choose it so much. I think I want to make paintings that are tender, or intimate. Often these are images of my boyfriend or my family almost doing nothing, sitting on a table or lying on a couch. I’ve always been working like that, even at high school, I would paint people close to me. I think it’s part of my nature. This decision is neither politically or conceptually driven. It’s just what I feel attracted to.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a pretty rural part of Maryland but went to school in Baltimore.

Speaking of Baltimore, do you know John Waters?

Of course, I love him. I know his works since I was a teenager. His ability to use humour in his work is something I am interested in and trying to accomplish too. What he does can be both perverse and funny at the same time. I think we are different kind of artists.

Is this your first exhibition in Europe?

Actually, I had a group show in London and then I did an art fair with them in October, but this is my first solo show in Europe.

What are you interested in representing?

I think I have the ability to talk about experiences that have actually happened to me. I am always trying to work starting from memory. I try to reach people through being quite specific about my own experience. I don’t want to make works that feel banal or everyday. I am trying to have an emotional connection with the viewer by being really specific or true to something that I know.

Today it seems it’s all about representing special things. We make the most striking things just for being able to be ourselves.

Something I’ve learned it’s that the more you try to appeal to people, the less you can actually connect to them. I think it’s true in terms of social interactions. The more genuine and honest you are, the more people respond to you. I wouldn’t say my work always accomplishes that, but this is what I am after.

Amongst your many references – André Derain, Kazimir Malevich, Claude Monet, Tiziano Vecellio just to mention a few of them –, there is one which is stronger than the others; Nicole Eisenman.

I feel really connected to her work. I saw it at a young age when I was at school and I think her painting had an influence on me. I appreciate you said that because more often I hear Dana Schutz, to whom I actually feel less connected.

The face and bodies in your painting, despite being small, manage to fill the space.

I like making small paintings that feel big in a way. I feel nowadays people tend to think about small painting in an unfair way, considering them second rate, or less valuable. I think it’s just an arbitrary distinction. Some of my favourite pieces from history are actually small. Vermeer is one of the most perfect painter. His work is so small. I also love Beato Angelico, whose tiny images around the bigger tableaux are incredible. Dimensions also correlate with the subject matter too. If it’s an intimate image you have to be able to physically get close to and handle it easily with your own hands.

Why did you choose to go to NY?

That’s a good question. Mostly because I wanted to be close to my family and wanted my career to get started. I was living in Berlin, after I graduated from school. I was funded to be there and had a year of very comfortable life. I made a lot of paintings there. But when it ended I had to decide whether or not to stay. It was really far from my family who still lives in Maryland and I didn’t know if I wanted to see them just once a year. I also found that business practices happened slower in Germany. More things would happen faster in NY and they did. That’s why I decided to move here.

You mentioned your family several times. It seems a very Italian attitude.

Actually, my great-grandfather is from Campobasso.

Are your Catholic?

Not any more, but I was raised catholic. I think it has influenced me in certain ways. I had a pretty rich imagination as a kid and I was often thinking about angels or the texture of heaven. Maybe I am a bit of a superstitious person because of growing up that way.

Do you feel more connected to Pablo Picasso or Lucian Freud?

I think Picasso was one of the best artists and I do love his work. But there is a macho quality to the way he thinks about the figures and the scale of certain paintings to whom I don’t feel I am connected to. Maybe this is where I become more similar to Freud, as I want to make something more intimate, about private moment of life, depicting a time when nothing is happening.

Freud made an artist out of a tragic life. The narrative behind his work goes further than the aesthetic values of his pieces.

I think about that sometimes as I feel I have lived a very charmed life so far. I don’t know if I have that melodrama. I think my work is about being astounded by life or grateful for it. It’s of course a privileged position, but surely an authentic one.

How do you paint?

I make a lot of drawings on paper and I probably spend most of my time drawing in my sketchbook or on papers in the studio. If I feel that a drawing has certain qualities that I am interested in translating into painting then I just start painting on the canvas with colours without really preparing the surface. Some of the paintings for the show at Antoine Levi are quite thin, for I made them there. If I were to plan the paintings to try to catch exactly the quality of the drawings then I think they would end up being quite lousy. I think it’s good for me to step back and let the painting show something to me that I didn’t think it was going to do.

It’s like being a novelist or a writer, you have to forget yourself.

I think so. Luckily painting is so automatic and intuitive for me that it’s quite easy to stop thinking when I am working. When your mind is not occupied by anything, you find yourself in an healthy place.

Were you good at drawing also as a kid?

I would say so. I remember being in a chemistry class which I was really bad at. I would stay at school day after day trying to get better at. At some point my professor told me that I would probably never improve at chemistry but at least I was very good at drawing.

Has John bought any of your works?

I don’t know him. I wish he did. Some of my classmates met him in Baltimore but I never did. Maybe one day.