ArtWeekend

The Prison Drawings of Frank Jones

Frank Jones, “Untitled (Puerto Rican German)” (circa 1960), colored pencil on paper, 18.75 x 25 inches (all images courtesy of Shrine, New York)

For Frank Jones (1900-1969) — a Black self-taught artist who spent his life in Texas, where he died while serving time at the state penitentiary in Huntsville, north of Houston (home of the Lone Star State’s execution chamber) — making art might have served as a form of spirit-lifting escape from the monotony and tension of his long years in prison.

Although his remarkable drawings in colored pencil on paper are well known among informed collectors and specialists in the outsider-art field, they still have not achieved the broad recognition enjoyed by the similarly unique works of Bill Traylor (circa 1853-1949) or Thornton Dial, Sr. (1928-2016), to name two other renowned, African American self-taught artists. This might be due in part to the fact that only a few hundred of Jones’s drawings are known to exist, and many of them have been in private hands for many years.

As a result, although examples of his work do routinely turn up at events like the annual Outsider Art Fair in New York, presentations of significant quantities of Jones’s drawings are generally less frequent than those of, say, Traylor. His last notable showings took place at Carl Hammer Gallery in the spring of 2017 and, later that same year, at Ricco/Maresca Gallery in New York.

Frank Jones, “Untitled (number 602)” (circa 1960), colored pencil on paper, 20.5 x 25 inches

Now, though, Shrine, a gallery at the southern end of Manhattan’s Lower East Side that often focuses on outsider art, is presenting 114591 — at nine drawings, a relatively bountiful exhibition of Jones’s production and one brimming with some of his highest-quality, most emblematic creations (tip to fans: there’s a tenth piece available that is not on display). The show takes its title from the artist’s own prisoner number. (Jones, who was illiterate, routinely marked his drawings with that impersonal, institutional identifier.) The exhibition remains on view through September 13.

Jones was born in northeastern Texas, near the border with Oklahoma. His enslaved ancestors had labored on cotton plantations. Young Frank grew up in a rural environment in which generations-old African traditions helped shape his aesthetic-spiritual sensibility and worldview.

Jones was born with a caul: part of the fetal membrane covered his left eye. In the society in which he grew up, this unusual physical feature was known as a “veil,” and children born with such cauls were regarded as “double-sighted.” It was believed that they could communicate with the spirit world. Throughout his life, Jones claimed that he could see supernatural beings — animated objects, animal-like creatures, demons — which he called “haints” (“haunts”), “devils,” or “haint devils.”

Frank Jones, “Untitled (number 112)” (circa 1960), colored pencil on paper, 12 x 18 inches

Jones, who worked as a farm laborer and did odd jobs to eke out a living, spent roughly two decades in and out of Texas jails; he was sent to the prison in Huntsville to serve a life sentence for a murder he insisted he had not committed. In the 1960s, as an inmate, he began making drawings on found scraps of paper with the stubs of blue-and-red accountants’ pencils. In them, he developed his “devils’ houses” motif — wiry-looking structures depicted in cross-section, in which his omnipresent, horned, bird-like “haints” resided.

Through his depictions of the demons he claimed to be able to see, and that, he explained, were always eager to cause mischief, Jones not only gave visible form to his spirit sightings, but also contained or curtailed what he perceived to be their hurtful powers. His winged devils’ grinning faces belie the harm he believed they could cause. Clocks often appear in Jones’s drawings, too, alluding to the marking of time and sense of mortality that, inevitably, are on many a prisoner’s mind.

In the early 1960s, Murray Smither, a young employee of the now-defunct Atelier Chapman Kelley, then an important gallery in Dallas specializing in modern and contemporary art, traveled back to Huntsville, his hometown, to judge a competitive exhibition of art made by inmates at the state penitentiary. There, he chose Jones as the winner of the contest. He shared his discovery with his boss, Chapman Kelley, whose gallery began offering the self-taught draftsman’s works for sale at a time when the market for what would become known as “outsider art” was still in its infancy in the United States.

Frank Jones, “Untitled (Whiskey Drunken Devil House CFA 692)” (1964), colored pencil on paper, 8.5 x 11 inches

Smither went on to become a collector, curator, and respected authority on folk art and outsider art from Texas and the American South. Today, at the age of 83, he is bringing his large, renowned collection to market through a year-long series of exhibitions at the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie, a small town south of Dallas. (Seekers of Jones’s works take note: one of his iconic drawings is among the Webb Gallery’s offerings, and Smither is in the process of donating a second work to a Texas museum.)

In the works on view at Shrine, some of Jones’s houses are so packed with fluffy demons that they seem ready to teeter or wobble. In some of these drawings, which are rich in decorative detail, Jones’s devilish spirits seem to emerge right out of the crossbeams of the houses they inhabit. In one elaborately shaped structure, they appear only symbolically, integrated into the artist’s form-giving, decorative patterning.

In this group of drawings, Jones’s houses are also at times exuberantly non-rectilinear, with appendages or protuberances providing quirky charm. (The artist’s cathartic intentions notwithstanding, another way to appreciate his works is to view them as intriguing examples of fantasy architecture.) Notable here, too, are the drawings in which Jones’s colored-pencil palette expands beyond blue and red to include green, orange, and purple.

Frank Jones, “Untitled” (circa 1964-69), colored pencil on paper, 25.5 x 30.5 inches

Of special interest among the works at Shrine are five that the gallery’s founder-director, Scott Ogden, a longtime outsider-art collector, managed to find from a private source who had owned them for many years and was ready to bring them to market.

These drawings offer vivid evidence of the expressive range of Jones’s draftsmanship and compositional skill, and several still bear, on the backs of their frames, labels from the galleries through whose inventories they passed over the years. For collectors interested in such artworks’ provenances — the records of those who have owned them over time — the collective history of these drawings mirrors the development of the outsider art field in the U.S.

Admirers of drawing in all its forms have plenty to savor in Jones’s mysterious — and mysteriously elegant — delicacies. Those who are already familiar with his art will find some gems in Shrine’s presentation. Newcomers may find them devilishly alluring.

Frank Jones – 114591 continues at Shrine (179 East Broadway, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through September 13.

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