Love and Loneliness: Queering Modernisms in Figurative Painting

Louis Fratino, "Metropolitan," 2019. © Louis Fratino. Image courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
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I work on 22nd Street in the Chelsea gallery district of Manhattan, so it was easy to notice the painting. Louis Fratino’s I keep my treasure in my ass (2019) faced the sidewalk through a small foyer of the Sikkema Jenkins & Co Gallery. The work’s sentinel form is an impassive male figure in three-quarter view, its agape eye underscored by marks of non-local color. He holds up the legs of another, more naturistically-rendered man, whose tumescent feet score the verticals of the image. A problem-set of modernist moves coheres in I keep my treasure in my ass: Picasso’s post-Cubist anatomies; blushes of pastel like those in Matisse’s Woman with a Hat (1905); the grey tinting of Beckmann.

But this nearly hieratic configuration gives way to an unabashedly gay erotics: a heavily contoured dick swerves at composition’s center. The men’s posture signals fucking, but a closer gaze discloses a narrative scene in which the artist gives birth to himself (as Fratino has corroborated in an interview). The cis-male asshole thus becomes a queer site of autopoiesis, of figurative and literal breeding, of a faggy expressionist involution whereby artistic production is self-production. Here, in a word, modernist tropes are queered. The blank, distanced faces Picasso saw in pre-Roman Iberian sculpture returned for the age of PReP, staring out from a New York gallery.

Louis Fratino, “I keep my treasure in my ass,” 2019. © Louis Fratino. Image courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

I saw Fratino’s work not only during my commute, but online and across social media, where it easily took up residence. Despite some later critical reservations of my own, it was nice and exciting to take in such depictions of aestheticized gay sex in my everyday visual field. This pleasure, as particularized as it might be to my tastes and desires, must’ve been shared by others. With his exhibition Come Softly to Me, which ran earlier this spring, Fratino garnered an infusion of critical (and no doubt commercial) attention. Artforum and The Brooklyn Rail took note, building off earlier coverage from The New York Times. Queer outlets such as Gayletter and Juxtapoz ventured to Chelsea, as well. John Yau at Hyperallergic even deemed Fratino “A Young Master of Painted Flesh.” Nearly all press on the artist spoke through the same affirmative argument: his work combined the iconography and stylistics of high modernism with a queer imagery, part of another development within the contemporary return to figurative painting.

In the days following the closing of Fratino’s show, however, queer representation inflated to the point of exhaustion. New York was set to host World Pride in order to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. Preparations for the event thrust “queer” imagery (a generous description) into a fever pitch of commercial branding and liberal affirmation. Assuming other queer people felt similarly, it was like we were performing homosexual variations on the mythic urbanites of Hausmannized Paris or Weimar-era Berlin. Grimacing countenances of self-actualized gays leered at us from every advertisement while virtually any establishment with a profit-motive slathered their store façades in shades of rainbow. The city interpellated us at every turn; the world gaslit us with tolerance. And although they operated with a putative degree of separation from corporate culture, museums and galleries played their part with a surfeit of summertime programming on art, queerness, Stonewall, and any permutations therein. Perrotin New York, for example, put on Them, a medium-sized show of queer figurative painting, where Fratino also showed. This showcasing of queer politics and queer imagery catalyzed a set of critical questions: what does figurative canvas painting do for queer artists? What political imaginings or aesthetic approaches does it permit? How do these artists navigate an inevitable association with painting’s status as an old-fashioned, market-prone medium?

These queries chart responses too expansive for one essay, but Fratino’s work is a good place to start. His paintings elicit the immediate gratification of identification, whether it’s politicized as a mode of solidarity (“the people in that painting look like me and do what I do”) or universalized into an allegory of erotic pleasure (“I like to see any kind of person do that”). Fratino’s work seduces a particularly first-person response from his viewers (and critics), one haptic and committed in its gaze. In the Rail, Wen Tao writes that, “I like [Fratino’s paintings] 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.” In an earlier piece for Cura, Zoe Williams confesses that “I am very drawn to the sense of closeness captured in Louis’s works, the feeling of touching and warmth. Within the paintings he seems to embellish and accentuate certain parts of each of the subjects body [sic] such as; the hairs, eyes, spinal cords and belly buttons, which all become dislocated from the main of the figure to take on the quality of motifs in their own right.”

It would be dishonest to state my own immunity; I find Fratino’s aesthetic mode of address to be generous and inclusive. These are paintings I like to look at because they remind me of certain experiences and make me long for others. There’s a directness in his approach that’s sex positive without insisting on that fact. And as a friend reminded me, it’s still not meaningless to see gay sex on the walls of Chelsea and across the posts of Instagram (curiously, painterly stylization allows anal sex to circulate past online censors). After all, queer people are still starved for images that show what they do and what they desire.

However, a contradiction flitters within Fratino’s work: for all the direct tactility his paintings perform, they are mediated by a heavy filter of citation. Fratino’s modernist provenance requires no critical sleuthing. Commentators and the artist himself have identified a genealogy that includes Beckmann, Bonnard, Chagall, Cocteau, Eakins, Hartley, Léger, Matisse, O’Keeffe, and Picasso, not to mention influences from African art and Greek kouroi (the kind of art that inspired European modernism from the onset). We might also add to that list the delegated coloring of a Delaunay or the psychedelics of late Kirchner. If Fratino’s ancestry covers wildly different progenitors ranging from Léger to O’Keeffe, it means that his work signifies not just the practice of a specific artist (although Picasso’s effect is undeniable), but rather Western modernism as a genre. “Modernism” here gets put in quotes, as it becomes a broad container for approaches that refract planes like Cubism, employ bold coloring like Fauvism, invert perspective like German Expressionism, psychologize space like Surrealism, and so on. And as the Perrotin exhibition Them proved, Fratino is no lone voyager: artists like Jonathan Lyndon Chase, TM Davy, Angela Dufresne, Gio Black Peter, and Salman Toor position their work in a modernist genealogy, while figures such as Inka Essenhigh, Sanya Kantarovksy, Danielle Orchard, and Yves Tessier might do so outside a strictly queer idiom. Nicole Eisenmann reigns supreme as the queer figurative painter par excellence, with Dana Schutz placing second as the straight, problematic alternative.

If you subscribe to a certain Euro-American story of modernism mostly delivered through the academy, then postwar artists had long compromised the values of figurative modernist painting. The Pictures Generation, for example, dismantled notions of patriarchal originality, painting’s claim to presence, and art’s commodification, while farther back, Neo-Dada sutured painting to the critical claims of the readymade. When New York critics in the 1980s such as Benjamin Buchloh, Hal Foster, and Craig Owens (as well as the artist Mary Kelly) saw the return of figurative painting in the guise of Neo-Expressionism, they warned of a reactionary recidivism in the artworld that should have already been shut down by postmodernism (although that term was never so unitary as that). Although scholars like David Joselit and Isabelle Graw have recently argued for the ongoing relevance of painting by virtue of its capacity to register, respectively, networks of data or the indexical labor of the artist, painting will always stand oriented toward retrospection, especially as it stresses analog materiality. So what’s to be gained for queer artists, artists located or self-identified outside dominant society, to return to that primal scene-medium of art history?

TM Davy, “Fire Island Moonrise,” 2018.

Retrospection is not always retrograde: revisionist approaches have taught us that we might have never actually known what modernism was, or could be. Such revisions include two New York exhibitions centered on gay American modernism at David Zwirner and MoMA, respectively, or the practices of artists such as Nick Maus and Andrea Geyer. While these approaches locate the queer people and women otherwise hushed within modernism’s narration, others provincialize Euro-America by locating modernisms in the Global South, as in Zehra Jumabhoy’s wonderful presentation of the Progressive Artists’ Group at the Asia Society. Increasingly, Euro-American voices have also looked to identify the colonial thinking that enabled white modernism, as in the 2016 Dada Africa exhibition spearheaded by the Rietberg Museum in Zurich. Modernism’s class-consciousness (when it exists) furthermore stands to be rearticulated, as in LACMA’s Shahn, Mooney, and the Apotheosis of American Labor from last year.

To put it more succinctly, we need to understand modernist appropriations through a dialectic of revision and repetition. And if, theoretically speaking, repetition necessarily engenders difference, then artists should self-consciously grapple with and reproduce that difference. If modernism is to be evoked, it needs to be articulated and disarticulated in the same stroke. I wonder if queer artists have been too content in using queer representations, or their own queer lives, as the automatic guarantor of critical, or even progressive practice. In the age of Mayor Pete and 2019 World Pride, the mere registration of queerness cannot suffice as a productive tactic. Queerness, like most identity positions, does its best work as coefficient: “queerness” as such might signify very little, but queer labor, queer environmentalism, queer justice, queer medicine, queer understandings of race, and so on, modify extant categories that we might think sit outside the orbits of gender and sexuality. Queer art, as expressed through figurative painting, should thus locate queerness within questions of form, color, composition, and other aesthetic variables. And queer art history, as the critic Chloe Wyma has recently cautioned, must also resuscitate older gay histories while taking their more troublesome elisions and investments to task.

Could Fratino’s work be a productive case study for this cultural crucible? How exactly does modernism alloy with queerness? His best paintings seem to overdo it, monumentalizing gay culture until it occupies the once heroic status of the straight-as-an-arrow historic avant-garde. Metropolitan (all works 2019, unless otherwise stated), presumably titled after the Brooklyn gay bar of the same name, concatenates Orphism, Malevich’s Sportsmen (1928), and Picasso’s minotaur motif to both applaud and estrange gay male sexuality. The smart yet bombastic Kissing Couple turns on a tiny drop of pre-cum at the top of the canvas, desublimating the rather conventional couple beneath it and establishing a fabulous, seminal lasciviousness through background slivers of white.

If these strong pictures vibrate between subversion and lionization, the weaker works overly stabilize both sexuality and modernism. Jamie, for examples, reinscribes rather than redirects tropes of whiteness and masculinity with its Vanitas-esque jock strap and centered cock. Fratino drops the compositional imbalance of Kissing Couple for an overly strategic demonstration here, where genre motifs and art historical references feel too slotted-in. Fratino’s approach can at times read formulaic, where the usual dyad of complementary color/rough cross-hatching motivates much of the painterly procedure, all bounded by close framing and insistent frontality.

Seen from a broad view, modernism’s most incisive moves centered new subjects of history or found new modes of aesthetic communication; as a legatee, Fratino tends to play it safe across the gallery walls. His presentation this year, for example, refrained from imagining the queer positions of women, gender-nonconforming people, or people of color. This is in some ways an easy critique, and one easily applied; Fratino noted it himself when he stated in an interview that “Representation in painting isn’t about me telling other groups of people how I see them, it’s about making a space for us to identify with each other. We all experience love and loneliness, and I’d love for us to all meet in an image. As a white male cis artist, those problems will always be present in my work, but I don’t think I can solve those through every painting.” The fault here is that modernist devices, if imagined as problematizing standard means of representation, should be put to use in expressing how “love and loneliness” themselves feel and concretize differently for different kinds of people. (Here, I’m continuing a skepticism voiced by Chris Stewart in his Gayletter review).

Nicole Eisenman, “Sloppy Bar Room Kiss,” 2011. Image courtesy of Vielmetter Los Angeles.

Fratino’s strength as a painter is that he presents, even if too comfortably, at times, a modernist vocabulary whose viability seems to question itself. His constructive, sometimes diagrammatic gestures throw established grammars into relief. Other artists exhibited in Them, however, internalized modernism more holistically as a genre, rather than as a set of procedures. This allowed them to play with thematic material more loosely than Fratino’s Grindr-ready repertoire could permit. Angela Dufresne’s Perfect Storms (2015) revamps Gauguin for the Anthropocene, subjecting both bodies and weather to the plasticity of the brush; she remains a virtuoso of the oily smear. And, however deliberately, TM Davy discovers the fabulous kitsch undergirding Symbolist tableaux; Fire Island Moonrise (2018), painted in minute naturalism, turns the titular gay vacation destination into a moody occult sanctuary, transforming literally a rainbow get-up into priestly dress. In his The Bar on East 13th, Salman Toor brilliantly quotes both Manet and Eisenman, issuing a sly challenge to the latter’s prominence. While the central figure cites A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, the amorous couple in lower right recalls both Eisenman’s Sloppy Bar Room Kiss (2011) and Beer Garden with Ash (2009). Yet Toor casts the vision in what looks to be his signature aqueous, absinthe green; his queerness is strangely and intoxicatingly anachronic.

Dufresne, Davy, and Toor might offer the strongest gestures in Them because they can have it both ways; their modernisms are ambivalent in that they use and abuse historical predecessors while maintaining a coherent style and avoiding reduction into mere transgression or provocation. Other modernisms in Them are agnostic, in that they’re willing to settle with the security of their citations and some inherent value to figuration. The Pop sensibilities of a Hockney or a Katz overdetermine Ana Segovia’s work, for example, while Anthony Cudahy unproductively riffs on the aggregative strategies of someone like Polke or Salle. With another masc, gay hook-up on display in Them, Fratino here nearly becomes a market brand.

Salman Toor, “The Bar on East 13th,” 2019.

I’ve thought often about a wonderfully utopian Fratino quote mentioned earlier: “We all experience love and loneliness, and I’d love for us to all meet in an image.” The sensus communis of queer figurative painting is surely one of the medium’s merits, its capacity to mold nodes of identification around representation, to generate publics and counter-publics. This is curiously the opposite position to another emergent formation in queer art, that of queer abstraction, where the lack of identifiability secures a critical edge and expanded possibility of sociality. (And perhaps the less said about queer portrait photography, the better, since in most of its guises it attempts to deploy the techniques of fashion and marketing for queer community-formation and historicization.) Looking at the affirmative sheen of Fratino’s queer painting, we might need to tap into the old agon between “gay” and its critical rejoinder “queer.” If a gay sensibility keeps modernism intact, a queer variant either addresses its flaws, exploits its strategies to their fullest extents, or brackets modernism as primarily a historical category. And this isn’t to say that gay visual art doesn’t explore the non-normative; Fratino’s paintings still show men fucking each other. But some of his works above domesticate homosexuality and gender-presentation at the same time that they tame modernism. As Yau writes in his Hyperallergic encomium: “Fratino’s celebration of male love and domesticity, as well as his imaginative transformations of motifs found in Picasso, suggests a shift has taken place in the art world: the age of derision, caricature, and imitation has lost whatever edge it once supposedly had.” This critical position is the analogue to the anodyne Pride tautology “love is love.” Queer treatments of modernism have more to say than that.

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