Klabunde's "Shadows and Ceremonies"

By: Ed McCormack February / March 2002
Published by Gallery & Studio

When European artists first discovered African masks and sculpture at the beginning of the twentieth century, they were primarily attracted to heir formal qualities, which along with the structural innovations of Cezanne, served as one of the primary catapults for the launching of Cubism. Picasso, particularly, saw African tribal art as a tool with which to wrench himself free from his roots in classical representation. His struggle culminated in 1907 with the epoch-making large canvas "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," one of the pivotal masterpieces of modernism.

But while African art has yielded a wealth of formal innovation, Western artists have generally ignored its equally rich spiritual content, as well as the humanity of its creators. By the very nature of their enterprise, collectors and curators, too, have taken African artifacts out of the context, entombing them behind glass in display cases and museum vatrines, when their beauty and meaning can only be fully appreciated in the vital kinetic motion of the ceremonial dances for which they were created.

All of which brings us to "Shadows and Ceremonies," a new body of work by the contemporary American painter and printmaker Charles S. Klabunde, inspired by the art and peoples of Africa and Papua, New Guinea, which can be viewed by appointment at Beyond the Looking Glass Gallery, 33 Bridge Street, P.O. Box 69, Frenchtown, New Jersey, 08825 (telephone: 908-996-6464 or 212-777-9162).

Klabunde, whose work is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art, in Washington D.C., and numerous other important public and private collections here and abroad, tends to work in series. Most of his suites of etchings and series of paintings spring from a philosophic or moral principle that he feels compelled to explore. This can come from anywhere. Previous bodies of work have evolved from diverse sources, ranging from Carl Jung's interpretations of the Tibetan Book of the dead, to Martin Buber's writings on The Seven Deadly Sins, to Albert Camus' ideas about revolution, to a half coherent plea muttered in pain by a homeless man on the subway: "Hold back the night!" This last poetic phrase struck Klabunde as a poignant expression of the human spirit's constant struggle against the engulfing darkness, and lead to a powerful series of paintings of that title.

The idea for "Shadows and Ceremonies" began to germinate when Klabunde found himself deeply moved by a book on African art and life that he encountered by chance. When, equally serendipitously, a neighbor began to import are from Africa and New Guinea a short time later, the artist became a voracious collector. Soon an entire wall and a good-sized area of floor space in his studio in Frenchtown, New Jersey, was covered with colorful masks and carved figures. Working among them, steeped in their strong emanations, aided by photographs of tribal dancers, he began to make the large, meticulously detailed pencil drawings that precede his paintings. While many artists employ drawings either as preliminary studies for paintings or separate statements, Klabunde's are both. While serving to guide the compositions of his large oils on canvas, they are also finished statements in their own right. Like the paintings, the drawings take as their subjects either the graceful bodies of masked dancers captured in the throes of strenuous movement or the expressive faces behind the masks, decked out in tribal regalia and confronting the viewer in dignified repose. Of the latter portraits, Klabunde says, "It's very important to me to show these people as individual human beings with souls, rather than treating them the way Africans are usually depicted in our culture: not much differently than those faceless extras who get tossed to the crocodiles in the old Tarzan movies!"

In the paintings, particularly, the individual character of each portrait subject comes across powerfully, asserting itself through the tribal camouflage of facial paint, intricate beadwork, and elaborate ceremonial jewelry. Much like the plumage of endangered avian species, these exotic adornments call attention to the innate beauty of these indigenous people and remind us of all that we lose when their cultures are usurped by the questionable "progress" of the modern world or wiped out by disease or tribal warfare.

In Klabunde's paintings of masked dancers, as in his tribal portraits, each composition depicts a single figure and conveys its singular presence with a centralized power that can only be compared to certain canvases by Francis Bacon. Granted, Klabunde himself might balk at this comparison to a painter whose often grotesque subject matter and looser, more impetuous form of figuration he might think antithetical to his own humanist goals and methodical working methods. Nonetheless, the two artists share an ability to create the sense of an encounter with a palpable human presence placed in a frontal pose at the center of the composition, invariably against dark backgrounds that cast the figures in start relief. While Bacon assaults the viewer with the visceral jolt of seeing the human image flayed like a side of beef, Klabunde confronts us with the culture shock of a spiritual tradition far different from our own. This is especially pronounced in Klabunde's powerful painting of a woman with a trance-like countenance gripping by its legs a rooster apparently sacrificed in a religious ritual, as well as in another canvas depicting a young boy with another dead fowl draped limply as a turban over his head. While such images may be somewhat disturbing to a "civilized" modern sensibility, they accurately reflect the spiritual content that most mainstream Western artists who ransack African culture for its formal riches choose to ignore.

Klabunde's paintings of masked dancers may be less provocative to some than the previous two pictures involving animal sacrifice, yet they still convey a host of meanings equally foreign to our way of life. In the tribal cultures of both Africa and New Guinea, masks are often worn to communicate with ancestral spirits. The dancer is believed to be transfigured by the mask, becoming the bearer of supernatural spiritual powers. Through their proud, stylized postures Klabunde's tautly muscled figures manage to convey the awesome responsibility of such transfiguration. Although these figures are considerably more realistic than those in "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," their anatomy appears to meld more naturally with the outlandishly exaggerated human and animal masks that they wear. For while Picasso's ladies pose as though for an old fashioned bordello portrait, Klabunde's dancers flow with the fluid movements of their rituals, becoming one with their masks. Charles S. Klabunde, the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the creator of a suite of hand etched illustrations for a deluxe edition of Samuel Becket's "The Lost Ones" that the author praised as "terrifying," has stated that "Shadows and Ceremonies" is intended to preserve aspects of a culture that is rapidly vanishing. In the process, he has created a series that, like all of his work, transcends its specific subject to make a universal human statement.