The Art of Chawky Frenn

Written by
F. Lennox Campello
Published on
November 1, 2020

The Art of Chawky Frenn

There are artists to whom the creation of art is a very personal thing, often decipherable only to the artist. There are also artists who create art to cause a public reaction – this is often where the gimmick masters tend to flourish. There are artists who experiment, try, test and explore and spend decades recreating themselves.

There are artists who find a niche and spend their entire careers doing the same thing over and over, unable to break away from an image or idea which has become an unbreakable habit.

There are artists who create artwork simply for money. There are artists who do pet portraits, house portraits, baby portraits, portraits of portraits.

There are artists who elevate the task of creating comic book art to a level of artistry seldom achieved by the most educated “fine artists” on the planet.

There are artists who live under the cloud of being illustrators and yet reach more souls via their artwork than all “fine artists” combined.

And there are artists, such as Chawky Frenn, to whom art is a harsh mistress who gives pleasure through both a brutal ability to record the dark footprint of the evil side of mankind, as well as the inherent beauty of the human race.

Frenn is part of the excellent fine arts faculty at George Mason University. The New York Times once wrote about his work that “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.”

We the People #69

“Over the years, elections have become public relations operations, largely stage-managed. Candidates decide what to say on the basis of tests that determine what the effect will be across the population. Somehow people don’t see how profoundly contemptuous that is of democracy. Suppose I’m running for office, and I don’t tell people what I think or what I’m going to do – I tell them what the pollsters have told me is going to get me elected. That’s expressing utter contempt for the electorate…”. Noam Chomsky, linguist, historian

Currently, and through January 8, 2021, Frenn has a powerful exhibition of forty-seven mixed media paintings executed on posters of the Constitution at the Delaware Contemporary in Wilmington, Delaware. The show is titled We the People, for Show or for Sure.

The news release for the exhibition notes that “these works represent Frenn’s response to the timeless manipulations of power and wealth, and their timely manifestations in Citizens United, the Revolving Door, deliberate injustice, and perpetual wars. The paintings summon the viewer to reflect on two fundamental concerns: the influence of money on politics and policy, and the history of the struggle for human rights. Combinations of image and text provide a visual space for reflection on people, triumphs, challenges, and threats to democracy as expressed in the words of presidents, lawmakers, justices, economists, historians, writers, and civil rights activists.”

Frenn is an artist brilliantly equipped to tackle powerful subjects such as these; his brush is enviably equipped to deliver a visual punch to the solar plexus of the mind, and to shake the imaginary shoulders of the conscience while screaming for attention.

We the People, for Show or for Sure, is an exhibition full of visually aggressive art. It is perhaps the art show of the year in the entire nation, as 2020 will remain in our memory as a year full of surprises of all flavors, nuances and colors.

In using facsimiles of the United States Constitution as the substrate for the paintings, Frenn immediately delivers a social and political statement even before a drop of paint is applied to the paper. When he paints the three wise monkeys from the famous Japanese pictorial maxim, floating above the Capitol dome in the classic pose of “See no evil, Hear no evil, Say no evil” we begin to explore the monkeys themselves looking for clues beyond the original one.

We the People #31

I worry very much what it does on the floor of the House and the Senate. How many people are going to have the guts to stand up to big money when they know that the airwaves in their states are going to be flooded with negative ads if they vote against Wall Street or vote against coal or oil? So I would say that one of the major issues that we’ve got to deal with is Citizens United. I think we need a constitutional amendment to overturn it. I think it would be a wonderful rallying point for folks all over this country. Senator Bernie Sanders

The Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol’s dome is strategically placed on the middle monkey so that it appears as though the monkey is sexually excited. Is that a compositional accident, or is Frenn wickedly referencing the myriad of political sexual peccadillos over the decades, mostly conveniently swept under the rug? The “Say no Evil” monkey is looking upwards to the words “We the People”, his eyes somewhat full of malice.

See how Frenn exquisite manipulation of the painting surface also manipulates what the eye “sees” and more importantly, what the mind wants to see?

Every single piece in this powerful show replicates the previous questions – each one is full of clues, statements and references.

We see Christopher Columbus, but not the Columbus who always signed his name as Cristóbal Colón, and who was allegedly born as Cristoforo Colombo, but the Columbus who is viewed with the glasses of the 21st century and not in the context of the worldwide savagery of 1492 – the fall of Granada, the Spanish Pope becomes Pope Alexander VI, the invasion of France by King Henry VII of England, the burning of Jews at the stake in Mecklenburg, Germany, and another 100,000 Jews are expelled from Sicily. Jews were also expelled from Spain, and in doing so, the battle lines for the next few centuries were drawn by the soon to be all-powerful Spanish monarchs.

We the People #58

“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shore, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society… We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population… Our children are still taught to respect the violence which reduced a red-skinned people of an earlier culture into a few fragmented groups herded into impoverished reservations.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

We see a 21st century Columbus, side-by-side with a stylized Native American; the painting surface is split in two, and they both look sad.

In several of the works Frenn goes for a primal scream as the terrifying main image, and somehow manages to deliver unique impressions in the several works depicting a scream, most notably a self portrait of Frenn and a brutal scream by a small child.

We the People #6

“We want a great country. We want a country with heart. But when people come up, they have to know they can’t get in. Otherwise it’s never going to stop. When you prosecute the parents for coming in illegally, which should happen, you have to take the children away. Now, we don’t have to prosecute them, but then we’re not prosecuting them for coming in illegally. That’s not good.” President Donald Trump

The New York Times also once noted about Frenn’s works that “a viewer senses that his life is inseparable from what he puts down on canvas.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette adds that “nothing in Frenn’s work is absolute or beyond question.”

And that sums up with Chawky Frenn does best with his artistic wizardry and his enviable painting talent: he puts his life on canvas or paper, and then lets the viewer interpret it and make his or her own interpretation of the subject.

Frenn’s work is both the life giving first breath exhaled after a near drowning, as well as the first breath of free will that Genesis so aptly describes.

We the People #44

“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.” President Abraham Lincoln