The Art of Chawky Frenn
By F. Lennox Campello
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.”
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.
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 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.
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.