Welcome to the doll's house: Don't mind the skulls

Written by
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
Published on
December 23, 2004

Welcome to the doll's house: Don't mind the skullsLebanese Chawki Frenn conjures images of Christianity and warBy Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

BEIRUT: You might think it would take a lot to upstage an artist like Damien Hirst, but earlier this year Chawky Frenn did so with ease. A relatively unknown Lebanese painter who works in a decidedly unhip hyperrealist style, Frenn caused a minor ruckus with an exhibition at New Hampshire's Dartmouth College in the United States, where his neoclassical, symbol-heavy canvases hung next to works by the better-known Hirst, a media-savvy British art star whose pharmaceutical installations and formaldehyde-soaked carcass sculptures have scandalized both press and public alike on numerous occasions. The students at Dartmouth seemed indifferent to Hirst, however. It was Frenn who got under their skin.

Frenn's work is nothing if not melodramatic. Drawing on high renaissance compositions and a long history of religious iconography, he has created an unsettling vocabulary of images, repeating chiaroscuro skulls, skeletons and dismembered dolls in his work. The Dartmouth paintings aroused such controversy in large part because they were uncharacteristically gruesome - featuring innards and the like - and placed near the school cafeteria. (Apparently Dartmouth has more than its share of militant vegans). But the immediate gross-out factor was mixed with lingering unease about Frenn's artistic style.

At this point in the critical reception of contemporary art, figurative painting forever courts being pegged as unfashionable. And figurative painting with art historical references further risks being labeled as insidiously reactionary or conservative. John Currin's paintings are figurative with renaissance postures, but they are populated by buxom babes. They are sexy. Frenn's paintings, on the other hand, are gravely serious. They are more difficult to swallow because they are political, philosophical and delve into issues of morality, good and evil, light and dark, Eros and Thanatos, seemingly without so much as a hint of irony.

"After many years of exhibiting, lecturing, teaching, listening and reading responses to my work," says Frenn. "I feel that my images have a wide range of reactions and responses that make them richer, more mysterious, more interactive and more reflective of the inner dynamics and perceptions of the viewer. To some, my work is too conservative, to others too liberal, too far on the left. It is tragic and devoid of humor for some viewers; to others it is light in its authentic dealing with reality. To some it is very European, ingrained in a long history of German angst, Spanish and Italian memento mori and vanitas; in Europe some thought it was a more puritan, American attitude. To the Lebanese I am too American; to the American, too Lebanese."

Frenn was born in Zahle and lived there until he was 20. His family sent him to the U.S. to continue his education. (This was 1981 and neither Zahle nor the campus of the Lebanese University where he was studying was immune from sectarian strife.) Besides regular visits back to Lebanon to see his parents (every three years or so - he was in the country last summer for a wedding), Frenn has been based in Boston, Philadelphia and Arlington (outside Washington) for more than two decades. He has shown his work three times this year alone - at Dartmouth; in a solo exhibition at the Fraser Gallery in Bethesda, Maryland; and at MAC 2000, an artist-run art fair in Paris. Still, whether they love or hate his work, Frenn's critics make a lot of his connection to his homeland.

Having done such canvases as 1993's "Civil War," a stack of decapitated dolls with a figure of the artist stretched naked and Christ-like on top, it's easy to read links between Lebanon's civil strife and the death and destruction alluded to in Frenn's work. But it seems, at times, both unspecific and overdetermined.

"My Lebanese background is essential to understand the roots and origins of [my] images," Frenn explains. "Lebanon nurtured my heart with mysticism, spirituality, beauty, paradoxes, conflicts and delusions."

He found his metaphor for representing his memory of the war in Lebanon, however, in the window of a doll's hospital - a shop where antique dolls are sold and repaired - in Rome in 1987. As in some of Frenn's more iconic paintings, the window was filled with discarded doll parts, which Frenn saw as an apt symbol of human fragility and suffering. As a visual trope, it also alludes to Frenn's understanding that many people died during another 10 years of conflict while he had the privilege of getting out of the country.

"As I worked more with the dolls' heads and skulls, they became metaphors for inner and outer observations," says Frenn, "for loss of innocence, for children [who] already have a history of suffering at a very early age and for the daily interaction of the ever-present birth and never-ending death in and around us. The dolls and skulls are the very symbols of oneness and continuity of life. If one is to make an effort to go beyond the facade of dolls' heads, skulls and nudes one may find anecdotes and mysteries that may not be as obvious as their connotations imply. Each of the elements, contextually and conceptually reevaluated, has the potential of becoming the thing itself or its opposite. The skull could be death, sin, refuge, salvation, interlocutor; the dolls could be abused or abusive, innocents or victims, animate or still; the nude a mother, a lover, a symbol, other, self, femme fatale."

Recently, Frenn's work has incorporated reactions to Sept. 11 and present-day politics, with a prevalence of American flags, the Statue of Liberty, Thomas Jefferson and more. None of this goes especially far in endearing Frenn to curators or collectors in the D.C. area, but he seems more committed to surviving by teaching than achieving commercial success as an artist. He has been a professor at George Mason University since 2000 and so rigorous are his studio critiques that a student of his once made a T-shirt saying "I survived Chawky's class."

Frenn is at work on a book-length project called "Art for Life's Sake" and is preparing for an exhibition called "What is Truth," to be held at the Washington Theological Union in D.C., opening Jan. 3.

"I am delighted to show in a theological school because I see my work as a form of prayer," he says, "if prayer is a communication with the divine made manifest in the here and now, and as meditation in action."

With the exception of a canvas that found its way into the Sursock Museum's autumn salon in 1997, Frenn has never really exhibited his work here, and he is not convinced that present-day Lebanon would nurture his artistic ambitions the way it did when he was young. And one wonders how the more religious angles and overtly Christian subjects in his work would play out if he were to mount a substantial show on local turf.

"I love Lebanon. I think I would not be giving my work the sky it needs by living in Lebanon. The reality of its structure would prevent, its full potential and growth. Yes, I do have the desire to share my work with my compatriots, but I would be concerned, there more so than here, about being misjudged."