The often-painful struggle to find meaning in a modern world that's caught between good and evil is the subject of a dramatic exhibition that comes to Bridgeport later this week.
"Ecce Homo: Paintings of Chawky Frenn," an exhibit of 39 works, opens Friday at the Housatonic Museum of Art, where it will remain on view through July 20.
Frenn, who was born in 1961 in Zahle, Lebanon, immigrated to the United States in 1981 to escape the horrors of his war-ravaged homeland. He will be on hand to discuss his work - and the influence that Lebanon's civil war has had upon his oil paintings - at a public reception June 13 at 1 p.m. at the museum.
Bridgeport is the exhibit's fourth stop on a six-museum tour of the Eastern United States. Other venues include Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., the Erie (Penn.) Art Museum and George Mason University in Fairfax, VA., where the artist is a visiting assistant professor of art.
Robbin Zella, director of the Housatonic Museum, described Frenn as a "great painter; the way he puts paint on canvas is exceptional. In addition to being a great technician, Chawky's work is intellectually stimulating."
Zella, one of seven museum professionals who contributed essays to the exhibition catalogue, said Frenn's work often critiques society's flaws and hypocrisies.
"He explores alienation, anxiety, oppression and the fear of death through interesting metaphors in a painterly style," she noted, adding the Ecce Homo is Latin for "Behold the Man," the words used by Pontius Pilate when presenting Christ to his accusers.
"My work is a battlefield, not a peaceful garden," the artist has said.
In a chat from his Virginia home, Frenn explained that his goal "has never been to create beautiful paintings per se.
"Art is not entertainment. Novelty for novelty sake is empty, hollow. I have always believed in a higher purpose" for art.
"I try to look inside myself, which tears my guts apart. I try to reach the nucleus of myself."
The artist explained that he witnessed six years of civil war as a teen-ager in Lebanon.
"When I left, the war continued for another decade - people killed, sacrificed and terrorized in the name of God, of the nation, of scared beliefs and basic rights.It just didn't make sense to me. This conflict, a paradox of clashing realties" has fostered "a search for unity and meaning among the chaos and absurdity."
After coming to the states, with the help of family already living here, Frenn settled in the Boston area.
"I didn't speak English well then; I had no money. So I worked full-time as a waiter and painted like a maniac, which proves that all you must have is desire."
Frenn would go on to receive a bachelor of arts in painting from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston and a master's of fine art from Temple University's Tyler School of Art study abroad program in Rome, Italy.
It was in Italy in the late 1980s that Frenn experienced an epiphany that would alter the course of his painting from still-lifes and landscapes to haunting, thought-provoking figurative images.
"Walking down a street in Rome, I chanced upon a doll's hospital - a shop where antiques and old dolls are repaired.
"The front window was stacked with broken dolls' heads, cracked and dust covered. A few were missing eyes or had only one eye. I was stunned by the display."
"There before me, amid the innocence of a tinker's shop, was a silent metaphor for war and the fragility of our human condition."
In the ensuing dozen years, Frenn has painted scores of works that focus on dolls' heads and on skulls, masks, statuary and the human male form (which is most often the artist).
"Mine," he says, "is a search to understand man's relationship to himself, to God, to nature, to the world around him."
"There are also many personal issues to explore: 'Why am I here?' 'What am I trying to say?' 'Why do I need to do another painting?'"
Although Frenn's paintings often deal with death and ding, the artist says that his work is a celebration life.
"There is dying and decay around us. But there is also growth and birth. There's destruction and construction."
"When an audience looks at my paintings, I don't want them to stop at the surfaces. There's not just one meaning."
"It is the small miracles of everyday life that must be appreciated. If from my work you don't come away with a desire to live life intensely, then you are missing the message."
"One must live life fully. Otherwise, what's the point?"