East City Art Reviews: We the People, For Show or For Sure: Chawky Frenn 2010-2020

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on December 8, 2020

 

Chawky Frenn, #31, mixed media on paper, 2010-2020.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

An unusual and timely exhibit of works by Virginia-based artist Chawky Frenn is on view at the Delaware Contemporary Art Museum in Wilmington, DE.  It features a series of forty-seven mixed media paintings, selected by curator Katherine Page from one hundred seven images made on posters of the United States Constitution.  Each is accompanied by a text selected by the artist that is quoted from one of a diverse group of political and religious leaders, including a list of presidents going back to Lincoln, economists, justices, writers, civil rights activists and others.  The series began ten years ago as an expression of Frenn’s outrage at the passage of Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruling that approved the claim that money is free speech and corporations are people with the same rights as those given to individuals in the Constitution.  This ruling opened the way for millions of dollars of “dark money” to be funneled into PACs and Super PACs to affect elections.  Working on this series for ten years, involving extensive research on the issues themselves and digging through a wide range of commentary that exists around them, led the artist to widen his scope, focusing on many ongoing struggles for democracy and human rights in this country.

Frenn has been painting and teaching in the Washington DC region for twenty years.  His imagery has never been easy, sometimes even hard to view.  Born in Lebanon in 1960, he witnessed six years of civil war before emigrating to the United States in 1981.  This firsthand experience of war, a war that took place in the streets and among civilians, would profoundly affect his life and world view, as well as his art.  As an art student he painted landscapes.  But his increasing unease about American society and its growing inequality and materialism sent him in another direction.  It was during a period as a graduate student in Italy that he had an experience that seemed to focus his memories of past horrors with the present.  In Rome, he passed a “doll’s hospital” where broken dolls and antiques were repaired.  The front window was stacked with broken dolls’ heads, many cracked or missing an eye.  The image stunned him as the memory of dead children coalesced into what became a mission.  Ever since, the dolls have populated many works, painted carefully in a style that recalls the realism of the Spanish Baroque and with much of its pathos.  Frenn’s iconography, which he called “art for life’s sake” is an extension of his personal commitment to justice and peace, and to the full realization of democracy in his adopted country, which in the past decade has been increasingly at risk.

On a visit to the National Archives in 2010 Frenn was inspired to buy ten of the posters they sell of the original document of the Constitution.  Printed on sturdy paper, they sat in his studio for a number of months before he had the idea of painting on them.  Having never before worked on paper, this encouraged the artist to explore a number of new mediums including ink drawing, charcoal, conte crayon, acrylic, watercolor and collage.  Once started, the series grew over the years, but not in a linear mode.  By 2020 there were 107.  Page and Frenn organized the selection for the show into thematic groups of four addressing seven topics:

The Charade of Justice
Native American Rights
African American Rights / Mass Incarceration / for-profit prisons
Women’s Rights
Immigrants’ Rights/ Asylum seekers
Citizens United and its corrosive effects on democracy
Endless War

Beyond these groupings, there are another twenty separate paintings addressing LGBTQ issues, the environment, and still others concerning the influence of money on politics, national policy and the tragedy of war.

Chawky Frenn, We the People, For Show or For Sure, installation of first gallery. Delaware Contemporary. Photo artist.

This is heady stuff, not for the faint hearted.  Flag draped corpses seemed to be everywhere, along with images of desperate children torn from their mothers’ arms.  Frenn’s remarkable draftsmanship and handling of his materials aid his ability to convey emotional and physical pain in a way that is again reminiscent of the Baroque, but also of Surrealism, Goya’s Disasters of War and perhaps most compellingly, of David Alfaro Siquieros’ images of the Mexican revolution and the Spanish Civil war.  An interesting comparison in this vein would be with Frenn’s #82 from the group about immigrants, with the double scream of a child based on the horrific images of children being separated from their parents at the border, and Siquieros’ Echo of a Scream (1937, enamel on wood, MoMa, New York).

Chawky Frenn, #82, mixed media on paper, 2010-2020.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

Many of the paintings seem to refer visually to art historical and iconic precedents reflecting Frenn’s knowledge of art history, as well as his interest in particular sources in popular imagery.  One popular icon, the bull of Wall Street, appears in four of the paintings referring to the corrupting influence of money, and the profitability of war.  Accompanying #44, a striking image of the bull trampling a flag covered corpse laying on a table, is a prophetic passage attributed to President Abraham Lincoln.  The text is so compelling it warrants quotation here:

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. [1]

Chawky Frenn, #44, mixed media on paper, 2010-2020.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

It is important to note that although the text and the image are to be understood as one work, the latter is in no way to be assumed an illustration of that text.  Frenn has emphasized how difficult it was to find the exact text he wanted to pair with his images which in each case were prior to their selection.  The artist’s intent was to lengthen the viewer’s interaction with the works, and to provoke further consideration of the issues they explore.

Among the grouping of the four images alluding to the injustices of the treatment of Native Americans the most interesting is the one quoting the Christ in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel who looms over a drawing of a mounted chief, arms outspread in supplication of the Great Spirit.  The drawing is a quotation of Cyrus E. Dallin’s famous statue located in front of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.[2]  Both well-known images are seen against one of the White House, all of it superimposed over the words of the Constitution.  Ironically, the raised right hand of the Christ figure is the one which is pulling the saved up to him—a gesture that is often misunderstood—but here looks like the opposite.

Chawky Frenn, #66, mixed media on paper, 2010-2020.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

Clearly, an exhibition this large, attempting to cover so much ground, is more than we can mention here.  However, in addition to the forty-seven paintings on the posters of the Constitution, there is one oil painting included in the group which also refers subtly to older art while making a strong statement about the present.

Chawky Frenn, Truth, oil on panel, 2019.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

Truth shows a flag draped corpse in perspective, as though laying on the White House lawn.  The narrow panel, 48” high x 24” wide, is composed so that the peaceful grassy hill and fountain take up almost three-quarters, crowned, as it were, by the White House whose flag is shown at half-mast.  The vivid colors and Frenn’s adept handling of the perspective make it visually striking.  As an art historian, I couldn’t miss the reference in the figure, feet toward the picture plane, to Andrea Mantegna’s famous Lamentation of Christ, thus creating an instant idea of the martyrdom of soldiers sent to fight in useless and endless wars.

A quotation from the artist’s statement clarifies the title of the exhibition which, as I hope I have conveyed, is certainly worth the trip to the Delaware Contemporary.

Is our democracy for show or for sure? We the people are the spirit, voice and power of the Constitution. We share dreams and struggles, hopes and uncertainties.  We are more similar than different; one and diverse.

We the People for Show or For Sure: Chawky Frenn, Delaware Contemporary Art Museum, 200 South Madison Street, Wilmington, DE 29801.  Sept. 11, 2020 – Jan. 8, 2021.  For more information about opening times and requirements, see https://www.decontemporary.org/   or call 203-823-8505.

Rotating image: Chawy Frenn, #42, mixed media on paper, 2010-2020.


[1] The quotation has often been attributed to Lincoln, but there is dispute about its authenticity. It may actually date from the 1880’s attributed to Lincoln whose politics would make it seem likely to be from his pen.

[2] Cyrus Edwin Dallin, Appeal to the Great Spirit, 1909.  In the sculptor’s own words, the statue represents a “final appeal to the Great Spirit for peace with the white man.”  Dallin was from Utah where he grew up with Native Americans and developed a great sympathy for them and their religious traditions.