Russell Tovey and Louis Fratino ponder the queer gaze and the necessity of creativity in the age of coronavirus

Shortly after lockdown began, actor and artist discussed their earliest encounters with Robert Mapplethorpe and the ways pandemic art can define a generation

Under normal circumstances, Russell Tovey would be spending this spring and summer on Broadway six nights a week performing in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Edward Albee’s classic dissection of a failing marriage. But these are not normal circumstances. Shortly before this interview, the actor received a call from New York’s Booth Theater, where the show was in previews, informing him that Broadway would be going dark with immediate effect. The next day, Tovey flew back to London to be reunited with his boyfriend and three dogs. Instead of performing on the Great White Way, the actor found himself lounging around in PJs and using his time to organize live events in the courtyard of his apartment building: Shakespearean monologues, unplugged music sessions, poetry, DJ sessions. Residents observe social distancing etiquette by gathering on their balconies to watch. Tovey is also using this unexpected time to record episodes of his popular podcast, Talk Art, in which he interviews artists, curators, and gallerists with his co-host, Robert Diament.

It’s been 14 years since Tovey came barreling into the public spotlight courtesy of The History Boys, the brilliant Alan Bennett play, later adapted into a movie (Tovey starred in both), about a group of high school students preparing for university. The play and movie introduced a cavalcade of young talents (James Corden, Samuel Barnett, and Dominic Cooper were all part of the ensemble cast) and catapulted Tovey to success in shows such as HBO’s acclaimed Looking and last year’s BBC mini-series Years and Years, a dystopia of our near future with uncanny parallels to our current condition.

An enthusiastic art collector—Tovey used earnings from The History Boys to purchase a Tracey Emin print—he is a self-described fanboy of the young artist Louis Fratino, who lived and works in New York. In many ways, Fratino is the best kind of candidate for a state-wide lockdown, not only because he is used to working alone, but also because his frame of reference is often no larger than the intimacy of a bedroom. More profoundly, his work aches with an interiority that feels deeply private, emerging from the tremble of heartache, the tenderness of a break-up, or the remembered joy of a fleeting encounter. You could see the play of solitude and introspection in “Come Softly to Me,” a solo show at New York’s Sikkema Jenkins & Co., last summer. In Me, a self-portrait, you detect a touch of melancholy in the wide, pensive eyes, the tight mouth. Maybe you’ve seen a person like this, alone, in a bar, wanting to be rescued from his loneliness. Fratino’s work tells us he has both seen that person and been that person. Heralded last year by the New York Review of Books as “one of the rising talents of his generation,” the 27-year-old artist has enjoyed a rapid ascent—singled out by The New York Times critic Roberta Smith for his “extensive vocabulary of enlivening, lapidarian brushwork,” and by Jerry Saltz for his depiction of everyday gay life that “raise the bar of figurative-visionary painting.” Like Jean Cocteau, he is drawn to representations of men coupling, but unlike Cocteau’s thirst traps, Fratino’s work hums with emotional as well as physical desire. He’s a deeply sensual artist. He likes feet and hands and is less concerned with proportion than with a stylized playfulness. Here, he and Tovey talk about their earliest encounters with Tom of Finland and Robert Mapplethorpe, the role of art in affirming life, and the men that have inspired them.

Aaron Hicklin: Russell, why did you choose to have this conversation with Louis?

Russell Tovey: Lou is a superstar. He’s 27—which is disgusting; he’s incredibly talented; and he’s got his own language. You can see so many of art history’s influences in there, yet he’s fully doing his own style. His work is proudly queer at a time when there seems to be a renaissance in queer art. For me, it’s intoxicating. As a collector myself, when someone connects with you in a way that is your pace, your style, there’s nothing more exciting. I love his work, and I love him. I’m a fanboy.

Louis Fratino: Wow. Thank you. I remember this collector came to my studio, an older gay man, and he said, ‘You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting to see this.’ I’d never thought about my work that way because I have the good fortune to live in a time where it makes sense for me to be out and open. Although queer artists have always made work, it wasn’t always allowed into the same venues that my work is shown in.

Russell: It wasn’t mainstream. It was deemed outsider, and marginalized. I remember finding a Tom of Finland book in a bookstore when I was 15 and poring over the images and being scared that someone would catch me looking at them.

Louis: I saw a show of his at the Drawing Center when I was in college. And even though it was so much more recent, I was like, Should I be here with other people? The pleasure I found in those images had been so private for so long that seeing them in a public space was really exhilarating, but also a little scary.

Russell: I remember seeing Robert Mapplethorpe’s bondage pictures and feeling exposed. I didn’t want to look at them for too long. You feel like someone’s watching you watching them. It’s a weird experience the first time you’re in front of them, as a queer man especially.

Aaron: Do you think a queer gaze brings something different to your work?

Louis: I think about a queer gaze being an unknown gaze. It’s a way of seeing something that hasn’t been seen before. When I first came to New York, I started making a lot of tiny paintings. The history of painting can feel so masculine and so monumental, so it felt like a queer thing to do—to make something small and ask you to give it legitimacy, even though they didn’t occupy very much space in the world. And I think that’s a queer mentality, in a way. You don’t have to beat people over the head or step over anybody to be in the world. I think my gaze has a lot more to do with how I see people than how gay people see things. That’s sort of the job of art historians or art writers—to coalesce something.

Aaron: You both rely on engaging with audiences, on stage or in a gallery. What are your concerns around what the coronavirus pandemic is doing to your field and the arts?

“The history of painting can feel so masculine and so monumental, so it felt like a queer thing to do—to make something small and ask you to give it legitimacy, even though they didn’t occupy very much space in the world.”

Louis: I was talking with a friend recently about what artists should be doing to help, and it really makes you think about what you believe. Is art a tool for social advancement, or for comfort? Or is an artist just processing their own life and anything else that happens is extra? It’s something I’ve been thinking about.

Russell: Anybody creative is thinking about what this means to them and the role they can play in the current climate. Stories get told through culture, through art and TV.

Louis: I love that everyone’s been watching Contagion. So masochistic.

Russell: It’s kind of self-harming. It’s like watching Candyman and then saying ‘Candyman’ to yourself five times in the mirror.

Louis: Then walking outside and realizing [Candyman] is real life.

Russell: I did a TV show called Years and Years, which was kind of prophesying what the near future would be like. It all felt terrifying, and now we’re living it. It just spins your head that the whole world is united in one common goal, which is to find a cure for this thing. You hope that when we get through the other side of this, there’s going to be some kind of a renaissance. The whole world is going to be, like, ‘We’re all the fucking same.’

“Normal life has become something that people are yearning for so badly, so art with life-affirming qualities becomes that much more precious.”

Louis: My work is so focused on the small pleasures of normal life. All of a sudden, I think about them in a really different way. Sitting outside with a group of friends is something we took for granted. Now, it’s this exotic joy even to pass a drink around. It’s crazy, but it’s amazing too. It’s like being sick and thinking, God, if I could just take a walk.

Russell: It’s the simple things isn’t it? Taking a really nice, hot shower, you suddenly appreciate it. Mother Nature stepped in and she’s slowing us down. She’s like, ‘You’re not going to do it yourselves. I’ve got to do it—chill out.’ It’s being forced on us, and my fear and fascination with the way things are going is: How do you make art after this on any level?

Louis: A definition of art that I subscribe to is that art is so much about affirming life, so in that way it can indirectly reference this. Normal life has become something that people are yearning for so badly, so art with life-affirming qualities becomes that much more precious. I don’t think I need to make Florentine paintings, but the fact that my work is just about life as I live it makes it more of a balm.

Russell: Have you made any fresh paintings since this has kicked off?

Louis: I was joking with Tom, my boyfriend. Because the setting of most of my work is my apartment, you wouldn’t know the difference.

Russell: My agent said to me today that actors are the most acclimatized to this situation because we’re used to just sitting at home on our own, waiting for something. All of her clients are, like, ‘Nothing’s changed for us, so this is fine.’ [Laughs]

Louis: I feel the same, and I feel very fortunate. I know the city will be permanently changed by the amount of businesses that won’t be able to stay afloat, and all the service workers who are out of work. When my friend was asking, ‘What do you think art can do right now?’ maybe it’s not the best response, but I don’t know if it can do that much. People just need support, and once things get back to normal, we can start looking at paintings again.

“I know the city will be permanently changed by the amount of businesses that won’t be able to stay afloat, and all the service workers who are out of work. When my friend was asking, ‘What do you think art can do right now?’ maybe it’s not the best response, but I don’t know if it can do that much.”

Russell: Do you think people with the money should be buying art to support the galleries during these times?

Louis: Even though I rely on galleries, I think any money should be directed towards people who are out of work. But if we’re going to focus on the art world then that’s art handlers, museum service staff—people who are probably living paycheck to paycheck.

Aaron: Russell, you mentioned Years and Years. Does it feel strange to have been in a show that was a prophecy, to some extent, of where things were going?

Russell: I messaged Russell T. Davies, the writer, and asked, ‘What happens now? He replied, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘Come on, Nostradamus of the TV world, what have you got planned for us next?’ I mean the world has been weirder than our parents have known, or any generation, for the last four years, anyway. You feel like, after this, what else is there? After this, it’s got to be, ‘Okay, simmer down, stay in your lane, let’s just take a beat.’ But yeah, I think people are watching Years and Years like they watch Contagion, in a nightmarish, self-flagellating style.

Louis: Do you feel like that show was an image of the dystopia, or was it more complicated than that? That’s something I think about in terms of making art: Are we supposed to present a world that we’re not in now, but will [be in]. Or is art the thing that will bring us there?

Russell: I don’t know, but I’m really interested to see the definitive works of art that come out of this period, and that will define this. All I can reference is the AIDS epidemic, and how the tragedy of that inspired so much art across every level. In times of absolute despair, fear, tragedy, the most incredible art is made because that’s how we communicate best. It’s storytelling.

Aaron: In the last few years we’ve become so focused on fighting about all the things that divide us. They’re real things, of course, but do you think a global experience like this can bring us closer to one another?

Louis: I think it’s like when you have a death in the family—these smaller battles seem so much smaller.

Russell: Superfluous.

Louis: By the same token, it can also show the cracks more. There was this article that suggested you had to be rich and famous to even get tested, which was the case for several weeks in this country.

Russell: It’s got to expose the darkness that’s there. The fact that the response was delayed long enough for senators to get rid of their stock and shares—what game is that?

Louis: I think some of us live in enough of a comfortable world that we believe that the government will take care of things. Other populations in this country realize that’s not the case. Maybe that’s an equalizing element of this—that people from all groups realize that the government gets it really wrong.

Aaron: Russell, since you mentioned AIDS, what do you think the queer community, and gay men in particular, can bring of their experience of that plague to share with people today?

Russell: Compassion and forgiveness. Compare the response to this—200 people die, and the news is everywhere. Ten thousand people died, in New York alone, before AIDS was even mentioned in the media. What the gay community has been able to do, amazingly, is forgive—never forget, but forgive and show compassion and try to show some understanding through the absolute horror and absolute anger at the mistreatment.

Aaron: Who are your role models in life and what about them influenced the way you see yourselves?

Russell: Robin Williams was my absolute hero. Seeing him in movies when I was a little kid made me want to be an actor. Dead Poets Society, especially, changed what I wanted to do with my life. Watching that movie and the way Williams made me feel, I wanted to give other people that feeling. That’s something I’ve been striving for my whole career. I never got to work with him. That would have been everything.

Louis: [David] Hockney is just a genius image-maker, an incredible colorist, draftsman, and someone who has been working nonstop and is still going, which I find so admirable and inspiring. He’s a gay man, but I relate to his work in a way that’s both about that, and outside of that. He also paints landscapes, he paints interiors, he paints his lovers, his friends, his family. I think that he represents the kind of queer art-making that is felt and very lived in, and not necessarily trying to say anything concrete or carve out a specific space. It was just him. I really believe that Hockney sees the world the way his work looks, and I love that about him.

Russell wears sweater and jacket by Ermenegildo Zegna XXX.


Aaron: How you would you each characterize your childhoods?

Louis: Mine was a good childhood. People ask me, ‘Why this focus on tenderness, or affection and love?’ And I think that the best parts come from my parents. I was someone who was really lucky in life to be showered with that. It’s obvious for me to want to dwell on that as an adult. I think that’s one of the biggest influences on what I choose to do than anything else, outside of art history, outside of being a gay man.

Russell: Fundamentally, at the end of the day, I just want to make my mom and dad proud. I guess every job you do, you want your mom to like it. I’m drawn to parts that are about family relationships and friends and love. I’d run towards those any day than I would to a sci-fi film about robots.

Louis: Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but if you want more love in the world, if we can agree on that, then maybe you’d make art that would contribute to that a little bit.

Russell: Exactly.

Louis: To give a clue about what my mom is like, I had this big show last April, and she came for the opening. Afterward, we were walking home and she said, ‘People kept coming up to me and saying, “You must be so proud, that was a great show.” ’ And she said, ‘I was always proud; this is just extra. It doesn’t matter whether you have a big gallery or career. Just being you is enough for me.’

Russell: Aw, that’s a sweet story, Louis. I love your mom. [Laughs]

Louis: Me too. She’s the best. I paint her sometimes.

Aaron: What would your advice be to a young person just starting out in their life?

Louis: I think that you have to do the thing you want to do, even if no one will see it. Otherwise, you’re trapped performing a version of yourself, which is its own kind of prison. You have to really try to make the work that you’d make on a desert island.

Russell: Don’t ever apologize for enthusiasm, ever. Whatever you’re into, go with it—as long as it’s legal and not hurting people. I’ve forgiven myself as I’ve gotten older for being a geek. When I was younger, I fought against the inner geek. I thought it was a weakness, and through maturity I’ve realized that it’s actually one of my greatest strengths— listening to that inner geek and letting him thrive.

Louis: I had this incredible professor who has a show at the Baltimore Museum of Art right now, but she said something that really informed my way of art-making, which is, ‘You only ever embarrass yourself if you never embarrass yourself.’ Which is really true of art-making.

Aaron: You have to be willing to fail to succeed, almost.

Russell: And if you don’t fail, you don’t realize when you’ve really succeeded.

Louis: Right, and you have to be able to love that person who fails, too, I think.

Russell: Yeah. Dude! You’re good at this! [Laughs]

Louis: I’ve just had really good teachers and I am copying what they’ve said because it must be worth something.

While the world reflects on what matters most during these challenging times, Ermenegildo Zegna is proactively working to make the zero waste dream come true with the #UseTheExisting project, highlighting the brand’s use of more pre– and post-existing materials in the construction of garments.