Easton Artist Pulls Meaning from the Void

By: Geoff Gehman May 12, 2005
Published by The Morning Call

Charles Klabunde lives, makes art and exhibits his work in a 1903 mansion with Corinthian columns, 54 windows and fancy floors that would make a carpenter cry happily. Hanging through June 30 in three gleaming galleries are 26 of his large pencil drawings of struggling angels and prisoners in holiday costume. Somehow, a graceful, cheery house on one of downtown Easton's most elegant streets seems a natural place for characters seeking light in darkness, meaning in the void.

Klabunde's ''Angels without Gods'' series stars muscular dancers haloed by melancholy. These air ballets represent what the artist calls ''the dread of being non-essential,'' the vast parallel universe people create to handle life's ''incomprehensive vastness.'' What happens to our faith, he asks, when angels, the beings closest to what we worship, are as desperate as we are?

The other series, ''Empty-ness of Laughter (The Louisiana Prisoners),'' is adapted from photographs in Deborah Luster's 1999 book ''One Big Self.'' Klabunde transformed Luster's antique, spooky photos of inmates dressed in Halloween and Mardi Gras costumes into billowing, unnerving portraits of alter egos.

Under each ''Empty-ness'' picture is a Klabunde poem concerning various violations. One poem addresses a soul split in half like a face painted with a half moon. Another addresses hope that can be found only at dawn.

Both series are literal and symbolic. The prisoners ''are desperately trying to find an identity in the most confined reality,'' says Klabunde. ''You have to give them a certain amount of dignity for their effort.''

The inmates and angels represent humanity's habit of self-imprisonment. ''We're never the right shape, or we don't have the right perfume, or we don't have enough money,'' says Klabunde. ''That's what advertising does: It makes us discontented.''

Klabunde, a 69-year-old native of Omaha, has been depicting discontent for five decades. The Museum of Modern Art owns one of his four-plate color etchings, ''Temptation of St. Anthony,'' a flying carnival out of Bosch's painted nightmares. The Brooklyn Museum of Art owns one of his two-plate color etchings, ''San Andreas Annunzio,'' a soaring portrait of a phantasmagoric cathedral.

Klabunde has portrayed existential nihilism in four artist's books. His etchings, made on a custom-made English press, appeared in his theatrical version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The project led to a 1970 Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, which led to a lurid adaptation of the Seven Deadly Sins, which led Klabunde to seek a collaboration with one of his heroes, Samuel Beckett. It was Beckett who in ''Waiting for Godot'' provided the classic existential nihilist credo: ''They give birth astride a grave.''

In 1982 Klabunde began making etchings for Beckett's ''The Lost Ones,'' the story of an other-worldly tribe trapped inside a cylinder. Working with Charles Altschul, publisher of Overbrook Press, he turned Beckett's characters into grotesquely configured, contorted creatures. His seven hand-pulled intaglio prints were placed loosely inside a handmade folio box with unbound pages of text.

"The Lost Ones'' was published on April 13, 1984, Beckett's 78th birthday. Beckett praised Klabunde and Altschul for ''those terrifying images.'' Klabunde was tickled by the thought he could terrify someone who terrified him by stuffing actors in garbage cans and urns.

The next year Klabunde traveled to Paris with a theater friend to meet Beckett, the Dalai Lama of playwrights. Klabunde's first exchange with Beckett sounds, well, Beckettian. After the artist said, ''I finally get to meet you,'' the frail, ill writer replied: ''Yes, you're almost too late.''

Over two days the three men discussed the universe in an American-style cafe near Beckett's apartment. Klabunde was impressed by the playwright's robust mind and generous spirit. ''He was warm, congenial. God, was he a nice man.''

Klabunde gave Beckett a copy of his Tibetan Book of the Dead. After Beckett died in 1989, he donated a copy of ''The Lost Ones,'' their only collaboration, to the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in Paris.

Inspired by Beckett, Klabunde decided to depict something more positive than existential nihilism. In series like ''Burned by the Fire of Our Dreams'' he essentially referees the debate between meaning and non-meaning. ''We can't just live in the negative,'' he says. ''We have to make the future work.''

Klabunde may be a deep thinker, but he isn't lost in the cosmos. In conversation he's polite, curious, enthusiastic. He says nice things about his companion, Lee Boyd, a labor employment lawyer, and his two sons, one of whom is an animator. He dotes on his cat, Barclay Beckett, a Makoun named after the playwright's last two names.

Klabunde celebrates downtown Easton, where he moved his gallery last year from Frenchtown, N.J. He likes showing off improvements to his house — a wall fountain in a courtyard is a recent addition — and his three-tiered garden, which at the top ridge has a thrilling view of the Delaware and Lehigh rivers.

The bottom line, says Klabunde, is that creating art about the abyss is much better than staring into the abyss. A drawing of a prisoner dressed as the Statue of Liberty is more liberating than a dissected cow in a tank of formaldehyde. Besides, says Klabunde, shock art doesn't really shock in an age of television terrorism, when jihad missionaries attack the guilty by videotaping decapitations of the innocent.

''Art is the search for finding out who you are, and what the world's about,'' says Klabunde. ''And doubt is the greatest tool for an artist. When you have doubt, you can't get self-righteous.''

''Poetry in Motion,'' drawings by Charles Klabunde, through June 30 at his gallery/studio, 73 N. Second St., near Spring Garden Street, Easton. Hours: noon-5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and first Sundays. 610-252-1938, .