On a bookshelf in his Arlington apartment, painter Chawky Frenn keeps an expansive collection of disembodied baby-doll heads. The weathered porcelain noggins lean on one another in a carefully balanced heap, some of them upside down and eyeless, others staring out at Frenn’s studio beneath cracked brows. In their midst, almost too inconspicuous to spot, is a pair of human skulls, one of them not much larger than a baseball.
“He was an embryo who died in his mother’s womb,” explains the bald-pated Frenn, cupping the featherweight cranium in his hand.
Whether they’ve been inspired or revolted, gallerygoers who’ve seen a Frenn exhibition probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the artist breaks bread each night beneath decapitated dolls and human remains, the most common props in his meticulously rendered work. Or, for that matter, to discover that Frenn’s spare bedroom is occupied by a complete human skeleton he calls his “companion.”
The 44-year-old George Mason University professor has been painting such subjects almost exclusively throughout his several-decade career, though he’s also managed to make room in his repertoire for the occasional jester’s mask or animal carcass. Their Old Master polish aside, his pieces have all the subtlety of a punch in the face.
“My images make people uncomfortable,” he says. “It makes them think about issues that normally they don’t like to think about.”
There are the ruins of childhood, represented by all those broken dolls. There’s the certainty of one’s own death, hinted at by one pasty skull after another. And, perhaps most disconcertingly, there’s the classic combination of Eros and Thanatos, depicted in works such as 2000’s Does My Art Make Sense?, which shows a naked man passionately embracing a skeleton. Although plenty of caring acquaintances have tried, not one has yet managed to convince Frenn to take a break from the graphic images and weighty issues he started wrestling with nearly 30 years ago as a child in war-torn Lebanon.
His mom, for one, isn’t crazy about Frenn’s fixations: “It starts with a mother who loves you and tells you, ‘Fine, in the beginning, maybe we didn’t want you to be a painter,’” the artist says. “‘But now that you want to paint, why can’t you paint something beautiful, something that people want to live with?’”
But at least she’s more understanding than the community of scholars at Dartmouth College: Earlier this year, Frenn showed at the Ivy League institution concurrently with infamous bovine-bisector Damien Hirst, who was represented by close-up images of lethal wounds. The mild shitstorm that ensued, however, belonged wholly to Frenn, whose work was hung in the hallway of a student dining hall.
“I don’t want to see bowels right before I eat,” one sophomore told student publication the Dartmouth after taking in some of Frenn’s animal carcasses. And in an editorial titled “No More Terrible Art,” a guest columnist pilloried Frenn’s “severed infant heads” and asked, “Has any consideration been given to those who dine at the Courtyard Café?”
It’s a common reaction for Frenn’s newest viewers: They react so viscerally to a skeleton or a doll head or a bit of mutilated meat that they see nothing else inside the frame. “There’s so much baggage that goes with that icon [of the skull] that we can stop seeing the context,” the artist says. “If they just see a woman and a skull and that’s it, then they won’t see anything.”
For Frenn, who drew his first skulls when he was 17, part of the context is personal. The civil war in Lebanon had been raging for two years when he started putting skeletons, serpents, and rotting trees—sometimes juxtaposed with more idyllic prewar images—in a sketchbook that he still keeps in his studio today. He’d never actually seen a real skull at that point, but he’d come across charred bodies in his hometown of Zahle, where sniper fire made it unsafe to walk around.
“I didn’t want to draw landscapes or beautiful things or get excited about the visual world around me,” says Frenn. “I’d already seen a lot of death by then. I was trying to make sense of what was happening around me.”
It wasn’t the most opportune time to take up an artistic hobby. But Frenn managed to take painting lessons from an Egyptian woman who’d fled her homeland after her family lost its estate to nationalization. Once he finished Catholic high school, he tried taking courses at Lebanese University. Higher education, however, proved too dangerous: Christian and Muslim students were killing one another on campus.
Salvation finally came in the form of a green card. Frenn’s Christian father, a goat farmer, took the then-20-year-old’s two younger siblings to the house of a Muslim friend for protection. Frenn, meanwhile, was sent overseas. In 1981, he met up with his aunt and extended family in Boston. After he left, Zahle was shelled without break for three months.
He’s had ample time to ponder his good fortune: “Why was I given the opportunity to leave Lebanon when I was 20, while hundreds of thousands of people are doomed to remain there with no hope for a future?” Such arbitrary twists of fate, he says, are the theme of his latest solo show, “Us and Them,” which opens at Bethesda’s Fraser Gallery on Sept. 10. “Some people have barely enough money for their daily bread,” he says. “I could have been one of them.”
Instead, he earned enough scratch waiting tables in the States to devote his real energies to mastering the figurative mode. Even viewers who find nothing thematically meaningful in Frenn’s work tend to respect his painstaking, classical approach to rendering nudes and objects with utmost verisimilitude. “The technical aspect is very important to me,” says Frenn, who usually paints from photographs. “I want to be an artist’s artist.”
Studying in Italy in the late ’80s, Frenn, like other studio-art students, walked the streets of Rome in search of subjects to put on canvas. Typically, he found inspiration not in a pleasant streetscape or a fine example of Renaissance architecture, but in the windows of an ospedale delle bambole where sentimental Romans took their ragged childhood toys for repair. Frenn hung out and painted in front of the shop for a year, watching the family of doll doctors as they stitched and glued, periodically asking the patriarch to rearrange the doll heads for new images.
“They don’t have the associations you normally have with dolls,” he says. “They’re not innocent, beautiful, or cute. They already have lived. They have a history.”
The use of such overt symbols doesn’t necessarily endear Frenn to others in the art world. Even the curator of the painter’s exhibition at Dartmouth declared, “Mr. Frenn’s show is one of the most conservative exhibitions I’ve seen here in quite a while….[N]othing could be more unhip in the context of the current reigning artistic discourse.” But the most visceral reaction he’s seen came from one of his professors at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, back when Frenn was in the midst of his most prolific skull-painting run. The prof, Frenn recalls, burst into his studio and vented all the rage he held toward his pupil’s artistic obstinacy.
“He yelled at me. He told me, ‘I know the world sucks, but why do I have to come to your studio and have you confirm that for me in your work?’” The professor told Frenn to stop shouting in his paintings and start whispering.
Fraser Gallery co-owner F. Lennox Campello thinks that many such commentators end up disparaging two of Frenn’s strongest attributes: his technical ability and his total lack of irony. “With Chawky’s stuff, you don’t need a curator explaining what you see,” he says, adding that skulls and nudes tend to explain themselves. Campello recalls a time Frenn called and told him excitedly how he’d entered an entirely new phase in his art, leaving behind all that morbidity: “That was when he started painting the carcasses.”
But the real lightning rod in Frenn’s art is its alleged political posturing. Some of his more contentious works, such as the new Caution! Religion and 2001’s September 11, feature nudes draped with American flags, and in 1993’s National Interests Versus Human Rights, Lady Liberty stands before a backdrop of human skulls. Some view the skulls as foreigners killed in the name of America’s freedom; others see them as patriots who sacrificed for that freedom. Frenn, for his part, encourages the ambiguity. “I’m interested in humanistic issues,” he says. “Sometimes these humanistic issues lead to religion and politics and social issues, but I wouldn’t consider myself a political man.”
Differing interpretations notwithstanding, even some of Frenn’s longtime dealers have been stepping lightly around his work since 9/11. Not long after the terrorist attacks, Frenn was dropped by his gallery in Boston. Although the parting was amicable, the director told Frenn that people had a hard enough time dealing with their real lives—they didn’t want to consider horror in their art, too.
And neither did they want to hang it over their fireplaces. Long before 9/11, some galleries were explaining to Frenn the total lack of marketability in paintings of skulls and skeletons. “I can’t tell you how often gallery dealers say, ‘We love your work, but we’re sorry—we’re a commercial space and we have to sell stuff,’” he says.
In fact, Frenn’s show at Fraser marks the first time he’s ever been invited back to a gallery for a second solo exhibition. In the first, “we had a lot of reaction—not positive—from people who didn’t know what he was talking about,” says Campello’s partner, Catriona Fraser, adding that a different showcase of nudes once brought an NBC news crew to her gallery’s doorstep. “This is Bethesda….We know this is a difficult region to try to sell edgy realism.”
Campello and Fraser have nonetheless managed to sell a few of Frenn’s works, most to collectors in Europe and the Middle East. But the artist says he isn’t interested in selling paintings—if it requires making innocuous works meant to tastefully decorate D.C. luxury condos. As that enraged professor told him years ago, discretion has never been Frenn’s strong suit.
“People accuse me of shouting in my work,” he says with a shrug. “But when you think I’m shouting, I think I’m not even whispering yet.”CP
“Us and Them” is on view from Sept. 10 to Oct. 6 at Fraser Gallery, 7700 Wisconsin Ave., Suite E, Bethesda. For more information, call (301) 718-9651.