Insiders: Henry Ray Clark & Frank Jones
Frank Jones was an elusive figure with a poignant, rather obscure biography. Born circa 1900 in Clarksville, Texas—a city still painfully segregated after the Civil War’s Reconstruction Era decades—he was abandoned by his parents as an infant and raised by an aunt in a religious, profoundly superstitious household where the legacy of slavery still held sway. Henry Ray Clark was born in Bartlett, Texas in 1936 and moved to Houston with his family during the immediate aftermath of the Great Depression. Both artists lived in the Huntsville State Prison at different times, creating powerful and distinct bodies of work that quickly transcended its walls.
As a child, Jones was apparently told that his left eye was hooded at birth with a caul (part of the amniotic membrane), a singularity interpreted in African American lore as a kind of reverse invisibility cloak; endowing those born this way with supernatural insight into the world of spirits. Fittingly, he claimed to have seen ghosts (or “haints”) and haunted objects since he was a young boy. He never received formal education, hence remained essentially illiterate, and was incarcerated three times between 1941 and 1964, in each case for crimes (rape, theft, homicide) in which he contended full innocence. The last time, he was sentenced to life in prison as a parole infringer and began drawing shortly after. Jones’s initial pictures were made with foraged materials: blue and red pencils used by prison staff and scrap paper. His palette stayed consistently narrow: scarlet or cardinal reds in combination with azure or navy blues—the colors of fire and smoke, as he described them—seldom branching out to shades of green and orange. The artist’s sole subjects were his signature “devil houses,” tiered, thoroughly compartmentalized structures where he placed and trapped the spirits that spooked him.
Though not preoccupied with perspective, Jones imbued his constructions with plasticity by tethering all outlines with a patterned overlay, frequently double sided, where prickly thorn and capsule-like forms repeatedly intermingle in different sequences, switching colors and accents like flickering lights. Generally, the simpler arrangements are sparingly populated (like theater settings waiting for the action to happen) and have a weightier presence on the picture plane. The more intricate compositions tend to look spectral, almost buoyant, with strategic accents signaling energy fields and spotlights. Because Jones’s devils are of the exact visual matter of the frameworks in which they dwell—playing a camouflage, hide-and-seek game on the viewer—his works often seem to depict a single primitive monster with many appendages, like entries in a medieval bestiary. The clever tenants of the houses morph into different shapes approaching birds, bats, fish, dragonflies, crustaceans, cacti, air plants, and the mysterious creatures found deep within forests or seas—inhabitants of both reality and myth. Most have the classic pair of head-horns, usually several more pocking out elsewhere, and those given a face are always smiling widely; some even mimic architectural elements, balancing on the roof like gargoyles or whirligigs, posing at the foot like heraldic statues, or taking the shape of clocks and thus jinxing time itself.
Clark dropped out of school at 14 and was educated instead, by an uncle so inclined, in the ways of gamblers, thugs, and pimps. Drawn to easy money and the thrill of a life beyond the law, he was a street maverick according to his own assessment; strolling through life with his unusual blue eyes and the noted epithet “The Magnificent Pretty Boy.” In 1977, after a string of drug-dealing convictions, he was sentenced, under the “Three Strikes” Law (implemented to keep recurring offenders separate from the community) to serve 25 years in prison for assaulting a man with a deadly weapon in a betting feud. He began to draw in a prison arts program and eventually won a prize in the one-day “Texas Department of Corrections Art Show,” the same event and award that had launched Jones’s career years prior.
Clark’s works are made with pens and markers on manila envelopes. He typically portrays a single main character in the center (an extraterrestrial being, esoteric demi-god, or allegorical figure) like an insect trapped in amber, regularly within a solid field of color peppered with a few emblems of interplanetary whim: a sun, small rocket ships, swooshes, twinkles, and stars. Beyond this nucleus, there’s always a kaleidoscopic framework that occupies most of the composition. In the suite of drawings presented as part of “INSIDERS,” Clark starts off from a chestnut or reddish-brown base that mingles intricately with structural and free-forming segments of gold, ochre, or mustard yellows—interlacing vivid or opaque greens, reds, blues, and occasional weavings of hot pink, violet, and magenta. The artist bends line and color into an overall effect of controlled asymmetry, fluidly integrating organic shapes, shadings, or abstract scripts and flourishes that resemble numbers and notation. This visual poetics implies an urgency to obliterate any vestige of untouched surface, a case of horror vacui in some ways reminiscent of Adolf Wölfli. In fact, Clark’s works are often so saturated with ink that they became furrowed with added texture.
Embedded in these compact layouts is usually a short declaratory introduction, through which the subject depicted introduces its name and provenance: “I Am Checo from the Planet Rat,” or “I Am Gator from the Planet Weird” and such. This cast of characters has the aura of a magnified fortune-telling deck of cards; at times solemn and cryptic, at times witty. Evident in these declarations is the unfettered confidence of a man who despite being physically captive, re-asserted himself as the autocrat in worlds of his own invention. “I tell them every night when I go to bed that I travel; I get on my little spaceship … all these places that I be putting on these papers and things, I go to them places at night,” said Clark in an interview with his patron William Steen—an unabridged narrative where the artist swiftly turns his life story into a rebirth saga. This ease with language and storytelling stands in stark contrast next to Jones’s only two inscriptions: his prisoner’s ID number (114591) and in some cases his name, or variations thereof—markings that strike less like signatures and more like spells, cast to moor an artist dispossessed by his nightmares back to himself.
Insiders points to the central paradox of “Outsider” art, whereby exclusion magically becomes exclusivity—a mystifying, ambiguous circumstance in a society of discrimination and privilege. Jones died of cirrhosis, still behind bars, in 1969. Clark died in 2006, after he was shot by trespassers who broke into his home, only five years after he had been released from prison.
“Insiders: Henry Ray Clark and Frank Jones,” The New Yorker
*All the biographical facts on the artist Frank Jones within this text come from Lynne Adele’s article “Frank Jones: Looking into a Hole in the Spirit World,” published in Raw Vision Magazine #62 in 2008 (https://rawvision.com/articles/frank-jones-looking-hole-spirit-world) and Edward M. Gómez’s essay for the exhibition “A Bi-Chromatic World” (2017) at Carl Hammer Gallery in Chicago (http://www.carlhammergallery.com/artists/frank-jones)