Painting the World As They See It

The artists Louis Fratino, María Berrío, and Anna Weyant are bringing a fresh perspective to figurative work.

by Drew Zeiba, Siddhartha Mitter and Camille Okhio
Photographs by Nicholas Calcott

Louis Fratino in his Queens studio in front of various works in progress. Fratino wears a Connor McKnight shirt and pants; Dior Men’s turtleneck; Church’s shoes; his own glasses. Styled by Marion Kelly. Grooming: Remi Odunsi for R+co and Chanel Beauty; photo assistant: Janelle Jones.

Louis Fratino

Louis Fratino has made a name for himself with his sensitive figurative paintings of male nudes that are loving, frank, and unabashed in their depiction of gay sexuality and desire. But at a solo exhibition at New York’s Sikkema Jenkins & Co. last fall, works like Waking Up First, Hard Morning Light, in which two men lie naked, side by side in bed, hung alongside less expected subject matter: a shadowy bird overtaking most of a nighttime composition; fish and an octopus on ice at a market; a bucolic backyard warmed by the sun. Yet those still lifes, landscapes, and images of animals did not signal an abandonment of the ethos behind the Brooklyn-based 27-year-old’s depictions of gay life. Rather, Fratino asserts that the expanded subjects “are about trying to get closer to a concept of queerness.”

Standing in the converted ironworks foundry that serves as his studio, in Ridgewood, Queens, Fratino explains that these departures from the body are intentionally “harder to pin down,” noting that he had occasionally begun to feel like he was performing a certain idea of gay artistic identity, rather than enacting or destabilizing it. “The new paintings flip the question back onto the viewer, asking, ‘Well, what do you actually need to see to identify or celebrate something as queer?’ ”

Fratino, who grew up in southern Maryland and moved to New York in 2016, shares the studio space with his dog, Margaret, a small, furry blur he’s had since middle school, and his boyfriend, the artist-designer Thomas Barger, who crafts furniture out of paper pulp. Fratino’s process begins with “almost automatic” sketches, usually based on a -recollection or a feeling. He then blows up these drawings, enlivening them with color and gesture on canvas. Because of his red-green color blindness, he sometimes asks Barger for input on shades.

While attending the Maryland Institute College of Art, in Baltimore, where he studied painting and minored in illustration, Fratino received the Yale Norfolk Painting Fellowship. Soon after graduating, in 2015, he went on a Fulbright scholarship to Berlin, where he focused on smaller-scale work. At a residency in Albisola Superiore, Italy, he brought his figures into three dimensions as terracotta wall sculptures. He was 22 when he had his first New York solo exhibition, at the Thierry Goldberg gallery, and he now shows regularly with Sikkema Jenkins, as well as Ciaccia Levi, in Paris. In November, his first museum show will open at the Des Moines Art Center, a far cry from the cosmopolitan and permissive art centers of Europe and the East Coast.

“It’s not New York City, and the experience of queer people there is probably really different than here,” Fratino says. “I’m not exactly sure how, but it’s going to be a privilege to be able to show in a context where I think the meaning of the work will change.”

Antoine Levi, Fratino’s Paris gallerist, describes Fratino’s work as both earnest and poetic. “The masses of colors, the melted geometries, the simplicity of the topics, the human warmth, the quotes of his evident artistic passions and readings—they allow us to live some instants of Louis’s own private life, which is what makes his work so unique today,” Levi says.

Fratino respects the lineage of painting history, but also seeks to contend with it; Picasso is a predecessor often cited by observers of Fratino’s work. There are similarities in the tilted and angular heads, in the subtly fragmented perspectives, and even, occasionally, in the color palette. The Italian futurists also come to mind: The contours of the legs of two men spooning in The Sleepers, 2020, have a velocity all their own. Other paintings hint at surrealism, with objects and inset “photographs” arranged and contained like items in a Joseph Cornell box. And in recent works, there are traces of early American modernists—Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Marsden Hartley among them.

“I like this mysticism around painting, where you can manifest something through it, whether it’s something as simple as doing the dishes, or being in love with someone, or feeling close to your family,” Fratino says. He wonders whether painting might not affect our perception of the present the same way memories do.

“Maybe this is kind of a silly way of talking about it, but it’s like you see or make this painting of dishes that you love, and now that’s, in a small way, a part of doing dishes forever,” he says. Fratino is referring to Eggs, Dishes, Coreopsis, 2020, a painting in which a drop of water is suspended midfall from the tap, a sardine tin is peeled open, and a flower is arranged in an empty tomato can next to bowls and forks and cups waiting to be washed. Depicted by Fratino, that simple image serves as proof that everyday life can be, as he puts it, “stranger and more beautiful than what you could imagine.” DREW ZEIBA

Small Family, in progress.

“I like this mysticism around painting, where you can manifest something through it,” Fratino says. “Whether it’s something as simple as doing the dishes, or being in love with someone, or feeling close to your family.”

Large Flowers, in progress.

María Berrío

Growing up in Colombia in the ’80s and ’90s, during the years of insurgency and drug wars, María Berrío turned to myths and legends to help her find hope and meaning in a nasty world. “There was always fantasy,” says the artist, whose childhood was divided between Bogotá and a farm where her parents took the family for safety. “There was your grandma, telling you how things used to be. And it came from being in a place where nothing worked, where the politics was messed up, where there was nothing to protect you. There was instead pure belief—like, I’ll put four ladders, one on top of the other, and have faith I won’t fall.”

Today, the United States, where Berrío has made her life and career, feels broken in many ways. There have been ghastly episodes, like the separation of families on the border, that are not lost on a Latin American immigrant who is also a mother. And the flailing response to the coronavirus pandemic attests to existential damage at a global scale. For Berrío, this makes memory, legend, and allegory more necessary than ever. “In my art, I dig into those needs and beliefs,” she says.

Berrío makes large-scale works with a mood of reverie, almost always featuring female figures. There are also unruly blossoms of bougainvillea; tigers, leopards, parrots, owls; mystical landscapes with mountain ridges and umbrella-like Socotra dragon trees. Lately, there have been interiors, as well: flowers in vases contrasting with a sofa’s upholstery, or barren decors with empty shelves that cry out loss. She calls the pieces “paintings,” which they seem to be from afar. In fact, they are collages of a very particular kind. Berrío’s medium is handmade, plant-dyed Japanese paper that she obtains from a master artisan in Osaka. Each artwork involves thousands of tiny pieces of paper that she cuts, aligns, and layers on canvas. She uses watercolors to fine-tune nuance and tone. The women and girls who populate her scenes are imaginary but intimately felt: The artist bases them on herself, on her family, and on the host of female figures who gather in her mind, whether drawn from her memories of Colombia or from documentary research. “I want to project women,” she says. “I want to project the courage and the strength, and also the vulnerability.”

Berrío, 38, lives in Brooklyn. She moved to New York for art school and completed degrees at Parsons School of Design and the School of Visual Arts. She found her collage technique later and has refined it for nearly a decade, experimenting with different types of paper before landing on her Japanese supplier, whom she found through Instagram. A breakthrough came in 2017, when she was selected for the Prospect 4 triennial, in New Orleans. She showed three works, including the large, exuberant Wildflowers, in which a train—similar to La Bestia, which migrants ride through Mexico to the U.S. border—surges from verdant mountains. Women cluster with animals and birds in scenes that convey the bravery and peril of the migration experience. “Her work has this connection between humanity and nature,” says Trevor Schoonmaker, the triennial’s curator and now the director of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. “She makes it clear that we’re all part of the same ecosystem.”

Now on the roster of Victoria Miro, the prestigious London gallery, Berrío is currently enjoying her first solo museum show, at the -Norton Museum of Art, in Palm Beach. It surveys her collages since 2013, including a recent series, Flowered Songs and Broken Currents, in which she imagined the lives of women in a Colombian fishing village that had been depleted of its men through some catastrophe. The pandemic arrived while she was making this work, adding to its force. “There’s this extraordinary empathy,” says Cheryl Brutvan, the Norton’s director of curatorial affairs, who organized the survey. “That, to me, is exceptional, and part of this moment in time.”

At her studio, Berrío, who is invariably warm and gracious, points to a pile of art books that have inspired her lately. “I feel like you have to have the spirits present,” she says. The range spans Lucian Freud to David Hockney, Kerry James Marshall to Jordan Casteel. The Indian interiors in the photography of Dayanita Singh remind her of architecture in Colombia. The Spanish painter Antonio López García fascinates her for his command of watercolor. Sheets of colored Japanese paper lie on a table, some with a sleek feel, others diaphanous and barely there, each handcrafted and unique. Their standard use in Japan is for lamps and for wrapping gifts, Berrío explains. She and her supplier have no common language, but he insists on showing her each sheet over Skype for her to approve. “I have to go through the ritual,” she says. “It feels like a collaboration.” The plant dyes lend the paper a watercolorlike subtlety, so that her own cutting and collaging process, with its watercolor finishing, has aspects of both transformation and a cycle being completed. Berrío’s method sets her apart from much of the collage tradition in the lineage of artists such as Hannah Höch, with their use of photomontage and an array of original and found materials. Her works share some energy with those of Wangechi Mutu and Njideka Akunyili Crosby, other female hybrid collagists with Global South roots and migration stories.

One piece in the studio is nearly complete, soon to ship to the museum. It shows three women enjoying a card game on a patio backed by a turbulence of plants in bloom, drawn from memories of women Berrío saw at flower markets in Colombia. One woman’s shirt, with red flowers embroidered on its collar, is based on the artist’s own clothing. “I love nostalgia. I’m okay with all of that,” Berrío says. “This sense of longing and distance, this blurred memory—I like it when it infuses the work in this way.” SIDDHARTHA MITTER

Berrío in her Brooklyn studio. Berrío wears a Dior dress; Machete earrings; necklaces (from top): Luz Ortiz, Another Feather (2); Manolo Blahnik shoes. Styled by Marion Kelly. Hair and makeup: Remi Odunsi for R+co and YSL Beauty; hair and makeup assistant: Oscar Chen; photo assistant: Janelle Jones.

María Berrío’s paper and watercolor collage Esperando Mientras la Noche Florece, 2020.

“I want to project women,” Berrío says. “I want to project the courage and the strength, and also the vulnerability.”

A detail of another collage, Between the Orchids and the Wheat, 2020.

Anna Weyant

The preteen and teenage years are both the most frivolous and the most intense periods of human experience. There is a primal, emotional understanding of urge, but the vocabulary and maturity to express it is often just out of reach. So instead, glances and gestures do the talking—often with muddled, confusing results. The 25-year-old artist Anna Weyant explores the discomfort and naivete of that age in her glumly hued, enigmatic oil paintings, often featuring women who closely resemble the artist and her friends. Sometimes presented as different chapters of the same narrative, Weyant’s compositions chart the mischievous self-discovery of someone anxiously sidling through spaces that are half memory, half dream.

Buzz around Weyant’s work began in 2018, with her inclusion in the group show “Of Purism,” at Nina Johnson gallery in Miami, curated by the multidisciplinary design firm Charlap Hyman & Herrero. Her painting in that show, Reposing V, could quickly be read as an odalisque for the Pilates-practicing Instagrammer. The central figure in the work is pale, like Weyant herself, her skin tinted slightly green, in harmony with her muted surroundings. Reclining in a bathrobe with a leg in the air, she poses for someone (likely another woman) just out of sight, whose presence is indicated only by a handheld iPhone reflected in a gilt oval mirror. The room she is in is minimally but sumptuously decorated, dark olive walls with a repeating diamond pattern subtly hinting at the padded walls of a mental institution. Right behind the shoulder of Weyant’s odalisque are peonies in the same shade, a day away from wilting.

Formally, very little is going on in these paintings, but the ambiguity of Weyant’s figures can still hold the viewer in steady and consistent conversation. It’s in the eyes—not looking at you, but fully aware that you are there. In a newer painting by Weyant, a female figure is positioned upside down, her head about to crash down on the step below her. “This image is derived from my own thoughts and experiences,” Weyant says, reclining in a corner of her apartment (a spare, sunlit space that doubles as her studio) on New York’s Upper West Side. “It’s not a literal translation, but it is definitely autobiographical... There is some joy in this fall, even though she’s inches away from her demise.”

Playing with scenarios that frighten her gives Weyant a feeling of control. A sense of macabre humor both tempers and heightens the emotional intensity of her subject matter. “I want the paintings to be funny, but I don’t want them to be a joke,” she says. “In a cartoon, you can run off a cliff and run back. But taken out of context, it’s darker.”

Weyant spent her childhood in Canada, and the lush hues of the wilderness that surrounded her often make their way into her work. “I grew up in Calgary but went to a weirdly conservative school an hour outside of the city, in the mountains,” she says. “Geographically, it was really beautiful, with a color palette of dark greens in the surrounding forests and mountains.” She trained in painting as an undergraduate at the Rhode Island School of Design, but only felt satisfied with her process years later. After RISD, she moved to New York and applied to graduate school but didn’t get in, experiencing what she refers to as the “20-year-old blues.” To cope, she started painting again, this time not for anyone but herself, alone and at home in the evenings after her day jobs (she worked as a studio assistant for fellow artist Cynthia Talmadge and in the office of Charlap Hyman & Herrero). At that time, she had no plans to share the finished product with anyone but her friends and family, but she eventually started working with the Lower East Side gallery 56 Henry, after an introduction by Talmadge in 2018 (she showed with the gallery a year later but is not represented by them).

Weyant’s paintings—with their references to Dutch masters like Frans Hals, Gerrit van Honthorst, and Judith Leyster, as well as to contemporary artists like John Currin, Ellen Berkenblit, and Lisa Yuskavage—soon garnered a following. In March, Weyant will have a solo show at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles. “Anna is clearly extremely gifted as a painter,” says Tim Blum, a co-owner of the gallery. “More important, the gifts of painting are coupled with an inherent self-awareness. This is just the beginning for her. She’s just going to get more and more complicated in all the best ways.”

Weyant is still getting used to the exposure. She often paints family and loved ones into her pictures, but her only model during the pandemic has been herself, and the large-scale results of those introspective months will be on view at Blum & Poe. “I love the idea of having these sorts of desperate and feeble characters be, literally, larger-than-life,” she says. “But I think of the paintings as little pages in my diary, so it’s difficult to have people reading them.” CAMILLE OKHIO

Anna Weyant in her New York studio next to Loose Screw, 2020. Weyant wears a Gucci knit top, shirt, and skirt; By Far shoes. Styled by Christina Holevas. Hair and makeup: Remi Odunsi for R+co and Marc Jacobs Beauty.

“I think of the paintings as little pages in my diary,” Weyant says. “So it’s difficult to have people reading them.”

Bite, 2020.

A work in progress, Wit of the Staircase, 2020.