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The distinctive images in coloured pencil on paper created by Frank Jones (1900-1969) have earned this African American self-taught artist, who grew up in poor, northeastern Texas, near the border with Oklahoma, a solid place in outsider art’s canon. So, too, has his life story, for Jones produced his remarkable drawings, only several hundred of which are known to exist today, during the latter years of his life, while he was an inmate at the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas, north of Houston.

Now, in New York, Shrine, a gallery at the southern end of Manhattan’s Lower East Side district, is showing nine emblematic Jones drawings in 114591, an exhibition that takes its title from Jones’s own prisoner number. (It remains on view through September 13, 2020.) The artist, who was illiterate, routinely marked his drawings with that number.

Jones’s drawings were discovered in the 1960s and first came to market at the now-defunct Atelier Chapman Kelley, which, in that era, was an important gallery in Dallas specialising in modern and contemporary art. At that time, the market for outsider art in the United States was still in its infancy.

Jones produced his drawings, depicting what he referred to as “devils’ houses”, while he was incarcerated. Using ordinary, blue-and-red accountants’ pencils and found pieces of paper, he drew cross-sectional views of wiry-looking structures inhabited by horned, winged, bird-like “haints” — demonic spirits whose cute looks belie their mischievous or even malevolent nature.

Jones claimed that he could see such spirits in the real, physical world around him, and that they were always poised to tempt the vulnerable and to cause harm. By capturing them and giving them visible form in his drawings, he believed that he could, in effect, disarm these troublesome forces.

Although Jones’s drawings regularly turn up at the Outsider Art Fair and in recent years have been shown at Carl Hammer Gallery in Chicago and at Ricco/Maresca Gallery in New York, in general, given their rarity, they are not often shown in quantity, allowing viewers to examine them in depth. Shrine’s current show includes nine drawings, including, notably, five that have emerged from a private source and that have not been shown publicly for many years. 

For collectors interested in such artworks’ provenances — the records of who has owned particular works of art over time — these drawings can be traced back to earlier gallery sources, their collective history evoking that of the development of the outsider art field in the U.S.

Of special interest in the drawings on view are Jones’s use of such colors as green, orange, and violet, in addition to his usual palette, and the irregular, nonrectilinear shapes of some of his “houses.”

As is often the case among the most compelling bodies of work in the related art brut and outsider art genres, the mysterious nature of Jones’s drawings are a large part of their irresistible allure.

Edward M. Gómez
Senior Editor
Raw Vision