With the first of its guest artist exhibits, the McKillop Gallery at Salve Regina University has boldly invited Lebanese-born Boston painter Chawky Frenn to confront visitors and the university audience with a series of large socio-political and religio-political images that go to the heart of our struggle with good and evil.
Utilizing classical religious images on occasion, but most often resorting to a stark image of sad-faced dolls and doll heads, Frenn creates a confrontational body of work filled with implications of our worst realizations of the world's worst injustices.
Cramming this imagery into every corner and covering every bit of the surface, Frenn laments not just the ruin of his land of origin but the confusing ruin of human justice and goodness. The dolls and doll heads, with their hollow appearance and their literal connection to children, present ironic emphasis for the artist's concerns, worries and realizations.
In each of the 10 large oil on canvas works, Frenn presents suggestions of suffering and pain through symbolism. His images retain poetry despite the lurid yellows, greens, reds and blacks with which he confronts the viewer, and in every case he seems to challenge death, fret over it and confront mortality at the same time.
He accomplishes the latter by often including himself in the work almost as a narrator. In one scene he sits with his head in his hands. In another he reaches down from above as his human figure embraces and kisses a skeleton in a literal acceptance of mortality. From one work to the other, Frenn's imagery contains no atmosphere surrounding the images since he creates all the atmosphere through color and lighting, image and narration.
As you move from piece to piece you develop a sense of the work being theatrical and allegorical. The doll faces become like characters in shock, and their suffering communicates to the artist/narrator, often leaving him bewildered if not hopeless. In the body of work and in each painting Frenn seems to be asking the questions that we so often ask ourselves when we permit our consciousness to settle on the world's suffering and injustice: What has happened to us? What is life?
Dealing with such universal questions can lead any artist into area that leave him open to criticism of pretension or manipulation, but Frenn skirts such criticism through his sincerity. At no point do you get the feeling that he is painting these images for confrontation's sake or because he fancies himself a great philosopher. With his obvious skill she could have continued to paint the lush landscapes that preceded this body of work.
Instead he seems the struggling wanderer like the rest of us, yearning for meaning and explanation in the face of overwhelming wretchedness. Given his origin and the calamity in Lebanon, there is little wonder that he would be moved to confront these feelings in his art, and given the religious connotations of Lebanon's awful disaster, his pursuit of simple answers through religious imagery makes sense as well.
The largest piece in the exhibit combines all his symbolic imagery in an oil on panel scenario that deals with politics, good and evil, social stratification and the suffering masses offset by classical religious images including the crucified Christ. A narration he provides for the painting refers to the wrongness of man's attempts to become God or to gain dominion on earth, and Frenn asks the central question: “Are we ascending or descending?"
In its way, all art asks that question, but few artists have the courage or the motivation to ask it as bluntly as Frenn does.