The Hopkins Center curates new art exhibits all the time, but rarely has one spawned the strong reactions and growing discussion as the paintings of Chawky Frenn shown in the Upper Jewitt Corridor by the Courtyard Café.
Reactions among the student body as a whole have been mixed, but what some deem the controversial nature of the images has led in general to more discussion among the students than shows previously hung in the corridor have. Standing by the Hinman boxes long enough, one will hear a string of comments reflecting a wide range of views on the work. Those who object to the paintings usually do so because of the decision to display the "graphic and bloody" images of caracasses and the like just outside the Courtyard Café where students regularly line up for the grill.
"I don't want to see bowels right before I eat; I find it a little disturbing," said Chris Murphy '07 while leaving the café. While he objected in such a way to the Jewitt Corridor show, he didn't object to what I would deem the more graphic and intense images of lethal wounds now hanging in the Jaffe Friede gallery at the end of the hallway.
While there are many students who expressed particularly strong opinions to this side of the spectrum, there are also many who have no objection to neither the images nor to the decision to display them in their current setting.
Taylor Smith '06, says she noticed the paintings not because they are revolting but "because they're cool." She and her friend, Adams Baker '06, don't understand why people have been offended by either the paintings themselves or their placement in the corridor. The positioning of images that many find it hard to miss or to ignore, as the case may be, where a large number of students are exposed to them is to some not offensive, but rather a particularly strong point of the exhibition.
Intrestingly enough, while many have objected to the bloody imagery in the Frenn pieces, there has not been nearly the same response to Damien Hirst's macro-images and descriptions of wounds displayed in the current Jaffe-Friede exhibit.
It is the accessibility of Frenn's work which leads to its controversy. As Sophia Khan '06 puts it, "I don't really know anything about art and what makes 'good art,' but I actually like it, because it makes me think and gets my attention and not a lot of things on campus do that." When asked, many students who objected to the Frenn pieces couldn't remember past exhibits in the same place, probably because, as Murphy put it, "the other stuff was not as in your face."
The feelings in Studio art department are just as varied as the mixed opinions within the general Dartmouth community. Louise Hamlin, a professor in the studio art department, said that she thinks the controversy is good, but wishes that people paid as much attention to the other exhibitions, not everybody in the studio art department agrees.
Studio art major and self-titled extremist James Sham '05 said, "The paintings are unusually offensive in that they target specific audiences. I'm a vegetarian after all, and I'm sure vegans feel the same way."
However, this is assuredly the minority opinion. Others in the department suggest that the controversy stems in part from the images being rendered very realistically. The style with which the images are rendered is reminiscent of Dutch and Flemish painting on the one hand, but on the other, they are very contemporary in content. Michael August '03 said, "The fact that the paintings are acutely traditional, but with a contemporary edge I find very appealing."
It is not surprising that the images evoke controversy and conflicting views in their audience. "Art is confrontation, not escape," Frenn once wrote. "Paintings need your participation. I believe they are about your journey as well as mine. I hope they will engage you in a dialogue. When you enter this exhibition, you enter my solitude."
These contradictory human traits have been a part of Frenn's life since his childhood. Growing up in Zahle, Lebanon, Frenn was continually faced with the horrors of war. Before immigrating to the United States in 1981, he was met with sights of people in his homeland being terrorized and killed in the name of God.
While his life experiences play an important role in understanding the work, the audience experience with his work is significant in that the paintings are an exchange or forum of ideas. For Frenn, the work is in part a foundation for interaction with viewers who might have vastly different ideologies. Judging by Dartmouth's reactions to the work, he has suceeded with flying colors.