Oscar yi Hou and Louis Fratino are at the vanguard of queer figurative painting

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The artists muse on Picasso, identity and Brooklyn nightlife

Oscar yi Hou and Louis Fratino sketch one another over the latter’s kitchen table, as sun came through the window for the first time that afternoon. They chat like old friends or a married couple—reminiscing, instructing one another to sit still, and to look up, and to look down. Louis leans forward, and Oscar back. Oscar starts his drawing four times over, while Louis smudges charcoal and chalk over the same sheet of paper he began with.

The pair met a few years ago in 2018. Yi Hou was studying visual arts at Columbia, after relocating from his family home in Liverpool, UK; at the time, he thought he might try for a mathematics major. Yi Hou is incredibly precise—it’s a quality that shows quite plainly in his work, if not in his affable, good-natured personality. His figurative oil paintings are meticulously rendered and richly colored—the product of an extensive palette, which he mixes as he goes. The youngest son of Cantonese immigrants, yi Hou reckons with the complexity of his Chinese-British-American-queer identity. The full-frontal nature of his portraiture is laden with cross-cultural iconography—sheriff’s stars, Chinese knots, prayer beads, cranes, star signs—and self-authored poetry, which he often renders deliberately unreadable. Yi Hou’s work is a testament to untranslatability: a privileging of narrative convergence over subjective simplification.

Fratino was born near Annapolis and moved to New York after a 2016 Fulbright Fellowship in Berlin. His work, like yi Hou’s, is largely figurative, taking full advantage of all the depth oil paint has to offer. A feature by Interview well-situates the artist’s approach: “Think neo-Cubism meets neo-Fauvism meets such radical American painting pioneers as Georgia O’Keeffe and Marsden Hartley.” Fratino’s characters are sloping and lithe and oftentimes nude, with arresting, oversized eyes and hands. His work gestures toward spontaneity, mastering the essential qualities of the human body. It betrays a penchant for sweetness and the quotidien—Fratino challenges the notion that queer art should depict only the public, the social, or the sexual, sometimes delivering resolutely domestic and naturalistic scenes. An earlier show at Sikkema Jenkins featured a still life of a sink full of dirty dishes, a handful of post-meal table paintings, and a loving depiction of the artist’s own backyard garden.

The twenty-something friends are still at the onset of presumably long and impactful careers; they remain self-effacing, and thankful to the artists who made history before them. In this conversation for Document, yi Hou and Fratino speak about queer cinema, New York night life, and cultural responsibility.

Yi Hou’s first solo show in New York City will take place at James Fuentes Gallery, from August 26 to September 26. Fratino will show at Galerie Neu in Berlin this April. 

“What I’m doing with my work is giving testament.”

Morgan Becker: Tell me about how you met.

Louis Fratino: Can I try to pull up the email Oscar wrote? Okay, I haven’t read this since he sent it to me…

‘Dear Lou, my name is Oscar yi Hou. I just finished my freshman year at Columbia University. I’m reaching out to you—through email—to ask whether you have a need for an assistant to help you make or prepare your works over the summer. And, if that’s the case, I’m proposing that I can fulfill that role for you.

As a queer man myself, your work is particularly gripping, and I find your paintings very important.’ This is actually much sweeter than I remember! ‘As an aspiring artist myself, and a visual arts major, I believe I would find learning from you through this position I am proposing hugely beneficial for my own artistic practice. Of course, the benefit to you would be equally as valuable.’ A little presumptuous! [laughs].

Morgan: How was Oscar as an assistant?

Louis: He was good. Some things he was better at than other things.

Oscar yi Hou: Like what?

Louis: You were really good at recommending tofu schmear for bagels! I had never had tofu schmear before. He cleaned my brushes beautifully. The one thing he wasn’t good at was when he sent all of the catalogs to different places. They had drawings in them for the people they were supposed to go to, and they all went to the wrong people.

Oscar: You never said anything about that!

Louis: Because I didn’t want you to feel bad about it. I was like, ‘I think I’m gonna do the FedEx from now on.’

Oscar: That was actually the first time I’d used FedEx. I remember that it was a really hot day, and I’d walked all the way. I called you and I was like, ‘How do I drop this off?’

Louis: It was all good. Some people were like, ‘Why does this say For Ellen?’ I didn’t want you to feel bad for no reason.

Morgan: Would either of you say you’ve been influenced by the other’s painting style?

Oscar: Not by your style, but your drawing practice inspired me to have a drawing practice. I was just focused on painting.

Louis: Your relationship to what you write has been inspiring for me. When I was younger, I would write a lot more. And then, I guess I was like, ‘Oh, that would just be something different, like if you were a poet or something.’ You incorporate [imagery with text] so seamlessly, and it’s really fruitful for your work. I want to start doing that.

Louis Fratino, sketched by Oscar yi Hou during their conversation.

Oscar: You should. I mean, there’s always been text in your work. Those table paintings?

Louis: I’ve been tentative about it. In that big painting I was working on—the one with me walking over the Williamsburg Bridge—there was all this text hidden in the graffiti on the bottom. I’ve been more self-conscious of what I write as opposed to how I draw.

Oscar: [Looking around] You have a lot of books.

Louis: Yeah, I love to read poetry. I don’t know if we’ve talked that much about poetry yet. Well, you’ve sent me stuff you’ve written, which was really nice.

Oscar: Thank you. You’re probably one of the few people who’ve actually read the poems, because you can’t really read them in my work.

Morgan: Do you exchange literature, then? What about film?

Oscar: Yeah. [Louis] loves Italian gay shit.

Louis: I do love Italian gay shit. You love Chinese gay shit. Happy Together was one we talked about a lot, which is such a beautiful movie.

Oscar: There’s Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask. A lot of gay photography.

Louis: I think both of us like to generate imagery by looking at gay photography. There is more gay figurative photography maybe than there is gay figurative painting, which might be why.

Oscar: Even in terms of the archive, there’s probably more gay photos than paintings. You can hide a photo.

Louis: That’s true, it can be a little bit more clandestine. And when you think about the gay figurative work that is made, like Charles Demuth’s watercolors—those are small. Not like, the big oil paintings he’s more known for.

I think that’s a way our work is interpreted—it’s a type of work that hasn’t been made very much, where it’s in full color, in oil paint, referencing parts of history that haven’t been referenced yet in a queer or gay context.

Oscar: We talk about that a lot—being queer figurative artists, and the whole discourse that surrounds that.

Louis: Yeah, it’s a complicated one. No need to not be out in your work. But since it’s also such a commodified thing, it can be kind of fraught, I guess.

Oscar: Your most recent show at Sikkema is very at home, very domestic. A lot of people have this vision of you just painting men fucking men. Your work is so much more expansive than that.

Louis: I was thinking too about who benefits from what kind of signifiers in queer figurative work. There is power in seeing men fucking each other. That’s still actually not the norm in painting, or in anything. But there is also a flip side to that.

You sent me an essay about the performance of an identity, which is kind of another prison in some way—it’s like, This is the content that belongs to you, as this kind of person. I’ve been thinking about that a lot in recent work. The natural world is also our content. That extends to all minority groups. There’s this idea of the default man—the heterosexual, white man, and he belongs in certain environments. Gay men belong in the club, in bed together, and that’s it.

Morgan: Oscar—as a Chinese gay artist, is there an even narrower lens of acceptable subjects for you?

Oscar: For a show I curated, QUEER OUT T/HERE at Tong Art Advisory, some of the artists were both Chinese and queer. Martin Wong, Tseng Kwong-Chi—those people do exist. Right now, there are overarching discourses that kind of constrict [artists with minority identities]. There are a lot of expectations placed onto you to produce work in a particular way, whereas I think minority identities open you up, really.

Louis: It’s something that I don’t have to confront in my work at all—this other layer of an identity, or way that my identity could be consumed. How do you feel like they intersect in your work?

Oscar: Right now especially, in the wake of a lot of anti-Asian sentiment, I’m very proud to be Chinese, proud to be Yellow.

For this piece I did, birds of a feather flock together, aka: A New Family Portrait, [the first half of the title] alludes to the way people critique Asians for sticking together. Cathy Park Hong recently released a text called Minor Feelings. It’s a really good exploration of Asian American consciousness. She talks about this thing where you see too many Asians in a room, as an Asian person. There’s a voice in the back of your head saying, ‘I don’t stand out.’

Being Asian, being a guy, the process of racialization is one of gendering. When you’re racialized as being Yellow, you’re feminized. With women, it’s being docile, submissive. With men, it’s being effeminate, celestial, bottom, gay. Whenever I think about Asian American politics, a lot of it has to do with gender and sexuality. I never look at these two things as separate.

Louis: And I guess painting’s duty is to represent a lived experience, or a felt experience, that would always be at odds with those things—because they’re constructs, and because they cannot be true about people. It’s a lot to feel responsible for in your work, I would imagine.

Oscar: The fraughtness of being Asian in America—there’s a lot that comes with it. As an artist, as a cultural worker, I want to do my part to help change that, or try and update it in some way. But I also want to be free, and do what I want. It’s a similar thing with queerness. What I’m doing with my work is giving testament. You are doing this as well—just giving testament to our respective lives, the people we encounter.

Louis: Have you seen Alice Neel: People Come First at the Met yet?

Oscar: Yes!

Louis: That show really made me want to draw from life more. It forces you to encounter the subject in a different way. I was so impressed by those paintings, because you imagine Alice saying to the sitter, ‘Make eye contact with me,’ how intense that is, and how rarely are we in that position in day-to-day life.

I feel like there’s something I’m not comfortable with in my work—the near anonymity of the figures almost presents an idea about what a default person would be in my mind. Like, ‘If it’s not someone specific, why are they racialized in that way? Why do they look like you?’ I feel like it comes from the fact that they are intended to illustrate a certain experience. But more than that, they’re about someone being able to have a relationship with them. Something about Alice Neel’s work—the fact that those people have such power as individuals, that’s not even part of the conversation for her.

Oscar: The figures you’re painting, they look like you. When I see them, they’re not really anonymous. They’re just a part of yourself that you’re putting into the world.

Louis: Yeah, I think I wonder about that, too. Does the world need images of me? Is that the best way to get someone to empathize with something?

Oscar: Every human being has put their life into the work that they create. That’s why I really like your work. It’s very honest. You’re painting your life.

Louis: But don’t you feel like that’s a bit of an eye roll, when you sense in someone’s work that it’s about having themselves be known? When people ask, ‘Oh, is that you?’ I’m like, ‘You really missed the point.’

Oscar yi Hou, sketched by Louis Fratino during their conversation.

Oscar: There’s always a danger of erring into solipsism when you’re painting your own world. But also, that’s all we ever do when we paint. If we paint someone else, we’re just painting ourselves in our relationship to that person.

I would say that what we’re doing is ‘minor art.’ Minor in the sense that, you know, we’re both queer. It’s not minority art, but art from people who are rendered minority. For example, women: Although they’re a majority, they’re considered a minority because of their lack of representation and power. A lot of minor art is about just giving testament to having survived and living a minor personhood.

Morgan: What’s the difference between normalizing and complicating notions of minor personhood? How do you assert your intentions one way or the other?

Louis: Well, it’s funny… I feel like that’s such a contemporary issue within painting: the intention of the artist. It’s like the Dana Schutz thing. What was her intention? Or with Picasso, representing a woman. What were his intentions? It’s not something I have an answer for, but it’s a curious question. What role does the intention of an artist have in an artwork? Does an artwork have a responsibility to say it all? Or is the artist’s intention negligible, and it’s actually just about the experience a viewer has with it?

Oscar: I feel like back in the day, artists could really do whatever they wanted, and then art historians and critics would then impose a particular meaning onto it. Whereas now, there’s an increasing need for artists to understand the consequences of what they’re doing.

Louis: But don’t you feel like this discussion around the artist’s intention is also a way out for an artist who makes a mistake? And it’s kind of like—it doesn’t absolve you of the things you did, because your intentions were good. This kind of intangible thing that doesn’t exist within the object.

Oscar: There are always opportunities for artists to outline their intentions. In artist statements, and things.

Louis: Right. And then in their artwork, to be clear about it. I think it goes back to this conversation I was having earlier, on whether an artwork can be an immoral or moral thing. Is there ‘goodness’ to an artwork? I kind of feel like there isn’t. There can be an inherent beauty. And there can be power. But I don’t know that there is an inherent goodness.

Oscar: Do you know of any ‘bad’ artists?

Louis: Well, Caravaggio murdered someone. Does it mean that his work is bad art?

Oscar: The big Picasso question.

Louis: Yeah, Picasso, it’s rougher than I realized. I was reading an essay in front of a group of his etchings. I didn’t realize the domino effect of his violence within his family. Jacqueline killed herself, Marie Thérèse. I think all of them didn’t survive except Françoise Gilot, who still lives in the Upper West Side.

Oscar: Nowadays, I figure Picasso couldn’t exist.

Louis: Well, I don’t know about that. There are a lot of nasty guys making a lot of expensive art.

Morgan: Do you think that queer art is overwhelmingly masculine?

Louis: I think that relates to the illegitimizing way society talks about lesbian relationships. The value is placed so much on being a man, that the reneging of masculinity is more of a shock to normative society.. I’ve read that somewhere—people are almost like, ‘Oh, let [women] do their thing.’ Gay relationships, at least historically, were a harder pill for America to swallow—because of that deliberate feminization.

I’m not saying in any way that makes it easier for lesbians. If anything, it makes it harder. There’s a different kind of celebration of gay male figurative work. It’s probably related to the way identity within queerness relates to gender. People are still giving men more power.

Oscar: Yeah, even in gay spaces. Gay men are the worst [laughs].

Morgan: How do you two interact with the gay social scene in New York?

Oscar: I like Mood Ring.

Louis: Oh my god, I have such a horrible story about that place. In 2018, I was like, ‘I’m having my birthday at Mood Ring, everyone come and dance.’ I invited all these people.

It was the birthday of the people that founded Mood Ring. All my friends arrived and they were like, ‘This is so bumpin, what the fuck?’ I was like, ‘This is someone else’s birthday party.’ The people that owned the bar. It was so embarrassing. I’m horrified at the prospect of having to attend a social function I’m not one hundred percent sure I’m invited to. That was like, the ultimate version of that.

Morgan: Oscar, didn’t you also have a birthday party at Mood Ring?

Oscar: Yeah. I was so drunk. Everyone was there, it was really fun. I tried to go into Mood Ring, but I was too drunk so I went back out. I sat down a couple blocks down. I found these AirPods.

Louis: And they were yours.

Oscar: From then on, they were mine. If you give a gift to New York—have I talked to you about this? It’s kind of like the umbrella economy. If you lose an umbrella, you’ll find one.

Louis: Oh yeah, it actually happened to me at the Guggenheim once. I had just bought an umbrella from Muji. It was raining. I checked it, I went back, and they just handed me some random umbrella. I was like, ‘Oh, sorry, that’s not my umbrella.’ And the woman was like, ‘An umbrella’s an umbrella.’ Like, fuck, that was like thirty-five dollars! Now I had one that said Purdue University.

Oscar: Only buy umbrellas from the deli, because you’re gonna lose them. But if you give a gift to New York, it’ll give one to you back. If you leave an offering, like a cupcake on the street for the rats to enjoy—

Louis: You’ll get a ratty cupcake one night. I think that’s true of New York. I think you have to project a certain kind of romance onto it for it to treat you well. That’s the case for anything you love. You’ve got to project a little bit. Which is maybe kind of nihilistic, but true. And fine.

Morgan: What are the qualities of a scene you might want to paint? Do you recognize them as you live them, or in hindsight?

Oscar: Sometimes from life, like when a person is posing in a particular way. But also from photos.

Louis: And sometimes it’s those things coming together. I’ll see a photo of a body in a certain light, and it’s just so beautiful. And then I’ll remember something that happened to me that was so beautiful. The two of those will come together in a painting.

Oscar: You know what I’m doing right now? A table painting.

Morgan: It’s based on that Alice Neel.

Oscar: It’s the one of the gay couple. One has a button undone, his hairy chest. A bowl of fruit on the table.

Louis: I’ve copied Alice Neel paintings also. [When] my brother had a baby, I wanted to paint her. Alice Neel paints them so well, because there’s something so unsentimental about her representations of anyone—but I think there aren’t so many unsentimental images of babies out there.

I copied the Alice Neel but said it was my niece. Because it was for me, you know? It wasn’t from a photo of her or anything, or from an experience I had very directly. But that’s a way that I interact with art history in my own lived experience.

Oscar: You’re using art history as a vehicle for your own life.

Louis: We’re associative thinkers, and because we’re visual thinkers, seeing something kind of alters the way you see that thing for the rest of your life—if it’s powerful.

Oscar: Martin Wong, his bricks. Every time I’m in New York…

Louis: Exactly, and how magic is that? Now you have a Martin Wong version of New York living with you. I think that’s also why I’m attracted to painting the everyday. It’s sort of a way of transforming the everyday. If you project something, you’ll get it back. Like projecting beauty onto doing the dishes, or walking down the sidewalk, then it becomes that for you.