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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

New Castle exhibit seeks to 'Behold the Man'
By Rebecca Sodergren

When Lebanese-American artist Chawky Frenn was a visiting instructor at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, he dropped by the Hoyt Institute of Fine Arts in New Castle one day, unannounced, to show his work to executive director Kimberly Koller-Jones.

"He was so enthusiastic about his work that it was almost childlike," Koller-Jones said of that visit two years ago.

Although his enthusiasm was childlike, it soon became obvious that his paintings were not - not in style, and especially not in themes.  Many of his paintings depict such initially shocking images as nudes embracing skeletons or kissing skulls.

But with deeper reflection and a little understanding of the artist's background, the works become more thought-provoking than appalling.  At least that's how Koller-Jones is hoping her community will react to Frenn's traveling exhibition, "Ecce Homo" ("Here Is Man" or "Behold the Man"), which is hanging at the Hoyt through May 25.

Koller-Jones was "kind of apprehensive" about displaying Frenn's works for a community she describes as "conservative," fearing that people wouldn't appreciate them. But she's hoping people, no matter what their personal responses to the themes, will acknowledge Frenn's talent as a painter.

"I feel very fortunate that we were able to host this caliber of exhibition, especially for the size of the community," Koller-Jones said.

And the Hoyt has taken steps to help buffer the exhibit for the community, from hanging explanatory essays to strategically placing ferns that hide certain portions of the nude paintings.

So far Koller-Jones has had positive responses - and lots of moved ferns.

The first painting the visitor's eye falls on at the Hoyt is Frenn's "Memory of Yesterday, Reality of Today, Vision of Tomorrow," which shows a self-portrait of the artist standing outside a doll shop window, where decapitated doll heads are piled in a jumbled mountain. Frenn saw such a doll shop while studying in Italy and was inspired to use doll heads as a symbol for the children in his war-torn home country of Lebanon.

Koller-Jones put that painting in its prominent location because she believes it's one of his seminal works. Doll heads crop up in many of his other paintings, such as "Civil War," in which the nude self-portrait of the artist lies sprawled on top of a pile of shadowy, unsmiling doll heads. Frenn's paintings consistently display the anguish of war and the ever-present reality of death.

This latter theme is explored in Frenn's triptych, or three-paneled painting, titled "The Dance." As Koller-Jones interprets this work, the left panel shows a man promenading with a skeleton, the skeleton in front to represent death overshadowing life. On the right, the man promenades in front of the skeleton, trying to win the fight against death. But the center panel captures reality - the nude man embraces the skeleton, representing the need for man to embrace death as part of life.

Koller-Jones noted that during Frenn's opening-night lecture, he explained that he also used color choices to try to capture the theme of embracing death. In such paintings as "I Thought Mortals Love Life?," the artist in self-portrait holds up a skeleton against a backdrop of gray doll heads. While you'd expect the living human's flesh tones to be warmer than the skull's color, Frenn executed a switch, making the living man appear gray and the skull warmer.

While much of Frenn's work is personal and brooding, there's also a political bent to some paintings. In his "National Interests Versus Human Rights," for instance, the Statue of Liberty stands tall against a background of hollowed-eyed skulls.

Christian images also show up repeatedly but sometimes in untraditional places. In "Arrogance of Despair" and "Temptation: Rise of Fall?," for instance, Christian icons stand next to fertility gods. In the triptych "Garden of Earthly Delights," a Madonna-and-Child in the left panel sit in front of a red cross bearing an image of the crucified Christ. The right-hand panel shows a bright-red devil, and in the center, numerous smiling and frowning drama masks - another repeated image in Frenn's work - represent life on Earth, between heaven and hell.

In the end, nothing is Frenn's work is absolute or beyond question. He admits as much in his catalog essay: "To better understand Man, my work questions both the sacred and the profane, and my iconography does not spare universal icons or consensus symbols. Religious beliefs, political thoughts, social issues and psychological analyses become fields of examination and dispute.

"My work is a battlefield, not a peaceful garden."