August 5 – September 13, 2020
Art is not solely made for the sake of the wealthy and powerful. It is often rather something else: a means of sharing this life in its complexity with others or perhaps a way to pass the time. 114591 at Shrine gallery makes this apparent through the haunted life and drawings of Frank Jones, a man who spent much of his adult life in prison for a murder he didn't commit. It is a shame that contemporary art rarely concerns itself with representing what lies “beyond the veil” without first taking a position of ironic distance toward it. I'm not just referring to mystical and religious iconography, but to artifacts of folk superstition, representations of hazy metaphysics as well as the delusions of mental illness. Drawings like those made by Jones, though accepted into the canon, remain at odds with what is generally thought of as “art” as a result of their sincerity and independence. It seems to me that this type of work, which arises out of the necessity of existential conditions, has the potential to collapse the often-arbitrary division between art and life.
Jones was born in 1900 to a family of cotton pickers, the descendants of generations of enslaved African people, in Red River County near Clarksville, Texas. Born with a caul—that is, part of the fetal membrane—covering his left eye, Jones belonged to a minority of people thought by folk wisdom to possess second sight. He began observing winged spirits which he called “haints” (or haunts) around age nine. His supernatural abilities, which occupied him throughout his life, were first acknowledged among the community in which he grew up.
In 1964, while serving a life sentence after his third confinement in prison, Jones began making drawings of “devil houses” using red and blue pencil stubs discarded by the prison's accountants. Later that year he entered one of these early drawings into a prison art contest. Not only did he win the contest, but the work he submitted drew public attention and he signed with a gallery in Dallas. Having found a new sense of self-worth he became well-respected among the other inmates, and the small income he made from art sales allowed him to buy a radio and wristwatch. But the original accident of his medium and palette ultimately became a preference. For Jones, red represented fire and blue represented smoke—the noumenal materials of hell. His nearly 500 drawings, created in the years before his death in 1969, were all constructed with the same method: He drew a frame using a ruler and pencil and then built up various cells around this framework from patterns of smoke and fire. The spirits, or “devils,” as he also called them, were often positioned in their cells under the overbearing watch of a clock face, which sometimes had many burning appendages that pointed out in all directions from its center; it has been speculated that these extra hands indicated the various times he requested parole and was denied. Jones’s later drawings eventually included other colors like green, purple, and orange, but the foundation of his palette always remained red and blue. Jones never learned to read, and it was thought that he had a learning disability. When he began drawing, he could only sign the untitled pieces with his prisoner number, 114591. He eventually learned to sign his own name, which he sometimes added, sometimes in cursive, next to his number. The selection of works at Shrine, drawn from different periods of his brief artistic career, demonstrate the impressive variety of his drawing style and signature.
A devil, for Jones, tempted with false promises and feigned niceties only to later betray. Concerning their appearance, he said, “I draw them as I see them.” They would jeer at him with burning fangs and smiles that beg “you to come closer to drag you down.” He locked the devils in drawings to contain them, forcing them to do time the way he was. It seems Jones's own imprisonment was inverted through the haints’ imprisonment. The notion of “doing time” splits into two levels: one of Jones and his fellow prisoners incarcerated for crimes they may or may not have committed, and that of the devils trapped, their vengeful tendencies thwarted. The house of devils seems to represent a common misconception about prison: that it is a place where bad, broken, and useless people go. But by making this misconception into an image, representing it as fantasy, there is a way that it points a finger at injustice and the false, moralizing beliefs about both race and disability, against which Jones must have struggled his entire life. When I look at his drawings, I am struck by their spiritual clarity. The lick of every flame and precise curve of every smile is accounted for. He knew the devils’ tricks all too well.