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Chawky Frenn's 'Ecce Homo'
By Karen Rene Merkle , Contributing Writer

Of the many disturbingly memorable images rendered by painter Chawky Frenn currently on exhibit at the Erie Art Museum, one has achieved a particular, haunting prescience since Sept. 11: "National Interest vs. Human Rights" depicts the Statue of Liberty surrounded by cloud-like skulls, more skulls skulking beneath her robes, and a hand reaching desperately out from her tablet. It's prescient because, despite its relevance to current events, Frenn painted the piece in 1993.

But then Frenn didn't need the events of the past month to tell him that the world can be a dangerous, frightening place. A native of Lebanon, the artist spent the first 20 years of his life in that unsettled part of the globe. He witnessed a six-year war "whose devastating images and consequences would powerfully influence my work," he explains. Art is the artist's way "to find meaning in a world filled with suffering and triumph, good and evil growth and deterioration."

The Latin title of the exhibit, "Ecce Homo," is literally translated as "Behold the Man." Ecce Homo was a common Renaissance theme, used to describe depictions of Christ wearing the crown of thorns. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche used the phrase as the title of his combination autobiography/review of his life's works, but interpreted it as "How One Becomes What One Is."

The latter translation certainly fits here; one reviewer said that Frenn understands Nietzsche's sense of the ultimate "tragic insight - the recognition that the human heart is riven, caught between the drives toward creation and decay, toward life and death, toward acceptance and slaughter."

In Frenn's case, to work though horror, the horror must be depicted, even if metaphorically. For that reason, most of the images in this exhibit may be too disturbing for young children. The power of this exhibit rests in its repulsive, confrontational, disquieting images, made all the more so because of recent events. The paintings are beautiful in their execution - not many artist use oils anymore, and Frenn has a classical, elegant style - but the grimness of the subject matter is appropriate during this time of national grief yet also hits a little too close to home.

Frenn, currently a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, taught for a year at Edinboro University during 1998 and 1999. That's where EAM director John Vanco made his acquaintance and first saw his work. This particular collection of his paintings has already been exhibited in Tennessee, Virginia, and Connecticut before coming to Erie; next year it will travel to Concord, N.H.

Skulls and skeletons, representing all that is evil and unthinkable, are among the primary recurring images. His men and women - always nude - scrutinize, cuddle, dance with, and kiss the bones; the suggestion that we must face evil, embrace it as a reality in order to destroy it, is implicit in almost every painting.

Dolls are another repetitive image that Frenn employs to represent the victims of war and evil, and the fragility of the human condition. The dolls haunted him after seeing a "hospital" in Rome where old dolls were repaired; up to that time Frenn had been painting traditional still lifes and landscapes.

Often, it's just the dolls' heads that are shown, on shelves or in piles. In "Civil War," a man reclines atop a pile of dolls, the purple sky visible through their empty eyes. Is he subjugator or protector? Frenn usually signals evil with the appearance of a skull or skeleton; the lack of either indicates that the man is more likely the latter, or perhaps an ineffectual observer. In "Il ne faut pas badiner avec l'amour," the dolls are accompanied by the three monkeys seeing, hearing, and speaking no evil; again, evil the dominant force, goodness a mere bystander. Frenn's work prompts us to ask, how good can goodness truly be if it allows evil to persist?

That's the type of question we're all condemned to ask ourselves. It's a responsibility Frenn doesn't take lightly.

"Art is confrontation, not escape," he says in describing his role. "My art does not create a romantic ideal made of poetic imagination or a subjective reverie. It is art for life's sake," he says.

That is something we should all be able to appreciate, now more than ever.