Frenn's paintings: Life from death, light from darkness

Written by
Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D
Published on
September 22, 2004

Frenn's paintings: Life from death, light from darkness
By Claudia Rousseau

A group of powerfully conceived works by artist Chawky Frenn, now at the Fraser Gallery in Bethesda , is strong stuff -- even for the most seasoned viewer.

Taking risks has been commonplace in Frenn's career. With this exhibit, he continues his relentless mission to force viewers to confront hard questions about life and death, good and evil, as well as themes of mortality and decay, sexuality and the impermanence of beauty and pleasure.  

These subjects were prominent in Western art in late 16th and 17th century Europe . They are generally known under two closely related categories: memento mori, reminders of death and mortality, and vanitas, reminders that mortal beauty is vanity that soon will fade and die. Although Frenn makes extensive use of traditional elements of this iconography, he is not obsessed with death. A man of deep Catholic spirituality who once seriously considered becoming a priest, Frenn uses memento mori and vanitas images to try, perhaps quixotically, to provoke the same kind of response in image-weary and often spiritually jaded 21st-century viewers.

Frenn says he desperately believes in "the triumph of life over death, of light over darkness, of love over hatred." This is, with an almost naive simplicity, the root meaning of all his paintings.

Seen from this point of view, his uncomfortable, sometimes graphic imagery is what he feels he needs to get us there. Profoundly influenced by Nietzsche (often quoted, along with Biblical texts, in his paintings), Frenn visually insists on the need to come to terms with the "chaos within," the mortal condition we all share. The issue is not only to overcome it in a transcendent or religious way. In a more immediate sense, by embracing our common mortality, we become capable of truly loving our neighbor.

The acid political imagery that Frenn sometimes uses, as in "The Will to Power," a small panel showing the feet of a corpse draped with an American flag, is not merely anti-war in any specific sense, but anti-hate, anti-division among humankind. These are high intentions, and sometimes the weight of such images with their less than subtle titles (for example, "The Hollow Cost," a large painting with a death figure and two nude youths against piles of skulls), can be a bit much. Yet, the authenticity of this work, the sense one gets that these issues are real for the artist, will engage the viewer who will allow himself to stand still and contemplate them.

As a youth in his native Lebanon , Frenn witnessed the real horrors of war and murderous division among neighbors. The six-year civil war there, now rendered pointless by recent political events, was certainly a source for his compulsion to explore these themes in his art. Yet, as the son of a goat farmer, Frenn frequently came face to face with the slaughter of animals, and by extension, with human mortality. Certain paintings in this exhibit include some of this kind of imagery. However, understood in the light of the artist's intentions, they take on a significance that transcends the merely shocking.

Frenn paints in oil on wood panel or hard board in a hyperrealist style that specifically recalls Renaissance and especially Baroque works. He commonly uses the pala format, a vertically oriented composition with an arched top found in Italian Renaissance and Baroque altarpieces. In the Fraser exhibit, "Before or After?" is a large panel in this shape, one of three presented like a triptych. In the upper part, Frenn quotes Michelangelo's "Temptation of Adam and Eve" from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Below this is a wall, and above it, a hook from which hangs a sheep carcass, rendered in excruciating detail. On the wall is a drawing of hands holding a lamp, another hand reaching toward it. A teacher's pointer rests against the wall with a trompe l'oeil shadow. On the other side, the handle of a scale hangs from another hook. While multiple readings may be possible, it's the iconic meaning behind this image that connects all the elements. The carcass clearly represents mortality and death. The quotation from Michelangelo tells us the painting is about our mortal condition, about the "happy sin" of Adam and Eve that made them the progenitors of the human race in a process that culminated in the redemption of Christ. The hands with the lamp suggest the latter. The scale on the lower right alludes to the judgment of the soul after death and eternal life.

Therefore, while Frenn does not represent Christian iconography in a necessarily traditional way, he communicates these ideas with a hard punch in the stomach, a wake-up call to the complacency of our culture.  

Among a number of interesting smaller works in the exhibit are "Teach Me," a panel showing a nude youth kneeling to pick up a skull, and a slightly larger one, "Forgive My Sadness," also in pala format, that shows a beautifully painted seated nude crouched in a near fetal position, a skeletal hand touching his shoulder. A tiny work on an arched panel, "Is this Comedy Divine?" suggests life's stages, showing the head of a youth covered by a white mask with a wide grin. On his left shoulder is a doll, Frenn's symbol for the lost innocence of childhood and on his right, a small skull. Consummate draftsmanship and handling of paint add to the power of these images.

Frenn's art is edgy and uncomfortable. It invites us to search for and confront the meaning of suffering, sacrifice and death. This is never easy. Yet, the wide success earlier this year of Mel Gibson's "Passion," a film that also went beyond the usual line in depicting the human suffering of Christ, is an interesting phenomenon. Frenn's attempt to bring serious and difficult meaning back to painting may yet be part of a larger artistic trend.  

Us & Them," new paintings by Chawky Frenn, is at the Fraser Gallery , 7700 Wisconsin Ave. , Bethesda , through Oct. 6. Call 301-718-9651.