Memento mori

Written by
Craig Smith
Published on
June 14, 2002

By Craig Smith I The New Mexican

Not everyone pays much attention to such thoughts. The religious or the meditative might study them closely, but most people prefer to concentrate on life's joys and ignore the mystery of death.

In so doing, they miss an important point: Life and death are equal partners in the cycle of creation and oblivion. Without one, the other has no meaning.

Chawky (pronounced Sha-wee) Frenn believes that strongly, as a glance at his paintings , will show. Again and again, Frenn's works juxtapose bodies and bones - the one full-blooded, beautiful, and tense with life; the other, the naked truth of skulls or spines or even the chilling stares of empty-eyed doll heads.

But, "This is a message of life and not a morbid indulgence," said Frenn, whose work shows through June 27 at Horizon Gallery.

"The message in my work is to take what is decaying in us, what is painful and ugly, and transform it into a life source for ourselves." Given that view, it's not surprising that his exhibit is titled Thanatos and Eros (Death and Love).

Frenn dealt with the daunting as a child, for he grew up in Lebanon during the civil war of 1975-1991. What he saw and experienced there still influences his art

"I was exposed early on to clashes - people willing to fight and kill in the name of God or patriotism or their values -whatever," the artist said. He speaks quickly, passionately, with words sometimes rushing together. "l saw an echo of that conflict inside of me

"The reason I'm painting now is for the same reason l picked up the pencil when I was 14. Before I knew who Rembrandt was, before l ever saw a Picasso, I took a pencil to draw and exteriorize the images that were compelling me.

"My very first images were of death, religion, trying to find out what my life is about. l still have those sketchbooks. Looking back now, I am amazed to see these images. This is still what l am painting."

Though striking, Frenn's work is not a new or an unusual step in art iconography; the tension between life as old as humankind. Ancient poetry from many lands speaks of the contrast between the breath of life and the stink of corruption. Guests at Egyptian and Roman banquets were urged on to greater joy by the display of areal or sculpted skeleton to remind them of their com­mon fate.

The Dance of Death is a common image in medieval theology and life. And consider the memento mori of so many high European cultures - skulls, often with hair still attached, kept by pampered ladies and gallant gentlemen as well as monks and nuns. The grisly objects were stern reminders that beauty and breath soon pass.

ln his work, Frenn said, he seeks "to bring meaning toa life that seems absurd." Thus he questions death, questions his relation to God and asks the eternal question: Why am I here?

His doll heads and skulls, he said, "are representative of the interaction of birth and death inside each one of us. Whenever I use a… continued on page 24 of the Pasatiempo.


Chawky Frenn, continued from Page 22

youth (figure) with a skeleton, I'm trying to figure out the action of the light and darkness inside me; the potential for good and evil inside of me

"I find that true of every human being, whether they lived in the first century or the 21st, whether they are Lebanese or black or white. The person that we are is the result of the interaction of light and dark inside each one of us, the yin-yang."

Frenn came to America in 1981, but the change of clime and country didn't alter his idea fixe. The more he paints, the more fuel for his obsession. "I feel my work is asking questions, always. The search for the answer becomes the meaning for my work and mean­ing for my life."

Frenn is a Roman Catholic, and his study of the Bible influenced and powered his early work. More recently, he has meditated on the philosophical writings of Friedrich Nietzsche

Even as his paintings bring together so many polar opposites, his view of Nietzsche's Ubermensch, the superman, incorporates both weakness and strength.

''When I think of Nietzsche, I think of something that gives me wings," he explained. "When I think of the superman, it is to accept fragility and power as a human being."

               A super-being, then, is "someone who fully embraces every possibility and flies as high as he or she can, with all the limitations and all the darkness and all the fragility inside - not ignoring it but choosing to fly as high as he can."

Frenn not only questions himself. He asks questions of his students at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., where he is a visiting assistant professor.

"l strongly emphasize, in my beginning classes, to learn the alphabet of visual communication - how to make form and light and space the traditional way," he said. l don't want them to paint abstractly because they don't know how to paint realistically.

"For the more advanced students, the process of painting will become a process of analyzing things to find their own obsessions I say to them, “What do you dream of? What nags you in the night"

"For me, it is not enough for art to be beautiful. It is not enough to be formally pleasing. Art is a form of communication." In fact, Frenn refers to his oil paintings as "active meditations."

"I invite my students to dive into the well, embrace whatever gives them pain and bring forth the sources of life boiling inside." But that doesn't mean he encourages them to indulge in romantic posturing. "My father is a farmer; we had goats," here called. The farmers would come and give us money for the manure of our goats, to spread on their fields

"I tell them (the students),use your manure to make your crop more fruitful. They can't take their sorrows as a reason why they want to cash out of art, or as a justification for depression

"People look at my work, they see the skulls, and they think it's depressing or sad or macabre," the artist concluded. "If you start at the facade, you're missing everything

"My work is an invitation to the viewer to confront issues that are hard to deal with. Look at what is decaying and stinking inside you and embrace it." ◄