Asking and Answering Some of the Big Questions

Written by
William Zimmer
Published on
July 8, 2001

Asking, and Answering, Some of the Big Questions
By William Zimmer

Chawky Frenn is a painter who has nailed down the figurative mode, and this accomplishment gives him the license to convey anything he wants, including the grand theme: the elusive meaning of human existence.

In fact, a pair of paintings in his retrospective at the Housatonic Museum of Art in Bridgeport are entitled "Does My Art Make Sense?" and "Does My Life Make Sense?"

Perhaps sense is not what's wanted. Mr. Frenn's art, with its abundance of recurring props and motifs, certainly makes good theater. A viewer senses that his life is inseparable from what he puts down on canvas or wood panel. If full engagement with both art and life is the equivalent of making sense, Mr. Frenn can answer the questions in his titles in the affirmative.

The show itself bears the title "Ecce Homo", meaning "behold the man." Those were Pontius Pilate's words when he presented Jesus to his accusers. Mr. Frenn's art is about presenting objects and ideas for our judgment, and because the notion of Everyman is behind his enterprise, the viewer's own life and attitudes get critiqued in return. There is moralizing here, but even though the paintings are packed with symbolic objects, it almost never gets too heavy-handed. At heart Mr. Frenn is a showman.

The painting that most succinctly sums up what he is after is "The Scream" from 1992. It's a long horizontal painting in which he depicts himself screaming at a skull that he holds at some distance from himself, and the skull screams back.

Mr. Frenn (his first name is pronounced chewy), now an American citizen who teaches art in Virginia, was born in Lebanon and he says in a catalog interview that the skulls he frequently encountered as a child during that country's civil war were the real thing.

He came to the United States in 1981 and studied painting in Boston and later in Italy. His art demonstrates much influence from Italian baroque painting, but the painting also has the ambitious and some what musty air of the 19th-century Neo-classicism.

Mr. Frenn's art is communicable - even if the message is that it's a mystery - in large part because he uses a set of symbols that are obvious. The counterpart of the ubiquitous skull is dolls, mostly dolls' heads that stand for, as he tersely says, the "ruins of childhood."

Many of his formats echo medieval and Renaissance altarpieces. "Silence" is essentially an arched panel in which a skull is surmounted by a doll's head. One of the more informal compositions is "Memory of Yesterday, Reality of Today, Vision of Tomorrow" in which Mr. Frenn depicts himself in a polo shirt standing besides a storefront whose window is crammed with dolls' heads in different states of damage. He says the painting is based on an actual doll hospital he came across in Rome.

Another gaudy set of imagery comes form the masquerades that were part of Venetian life in the 17th and 18th centuries. A full panoply of masks, many grinning and many with bird-like beaks, is the center panel of "Garden of Earthly Delights." The right panel is filed by a devil mask with a red face and blue horns; the left panel is baroque, too, but it contains a depiction of a statue of Mary holding Jesus with the crucifixion behind. The entire painting would seem to say that the division between the sacred and profane can be seamless.

A further elaboration of this theme occurs in "Temptation: Rise or Fall?" and the more complex "Arrogance of Despair" in which the startling main pairing is a statue of Christ as a youth holding a blue orb that represents the world, and tempted or shadowed by a fearsome priapic idol. In "Arrogance of Despair," small flanking panels contain the opposing images of an austere John the Baptist and a Harlequin.

Mr. Frenn usually sticks to eternal truths conveyed through universally understood, or at least graspable, objects. But in a couple of paintings he gets specific, while not abandoning his customary imagery. A painting featuring layer upon layer of skulls bears the title "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians? Hitler." This painting conveys the idea that eternal truths can be cyclical and occupy definite historical moments.

"National Interests versus Human Rights" is the full-length figure of the Statue of Liberty in an atmosphere of chimerical skulls.

For all the complexity and levels of his image-packed allegories, Mr. Frenn is at his most compelling when he shows himself starkly romancing a skull. In "Into my Limbo" he embraces and kisses one. The motif of the kiss recurs several times in the exhibition. A miniature depiction of himself reaches down to these figures from his perch in an arch topping the panel. This is the pose of William Blake's God drawing the universe with a compass. "Je suis le Liban" or "I am the Lebanese" is a related painting but the small figure in the arch sits it out, declining to participate. In several works the skull, now attached to a skeleton, is made to merge with Mr. Frenn's own face. And in a few meaningful instances women embrace and cosset skulls, too.