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Frank Jones, Untitled (Whiskey Drunken Devil House CFA 692), 1964, colored pencil on paper, 8 1/2 × 11".

Frank Jones, Untitled (Whiskey Drunken Devil House CFA 692), 1964, colored pencil on paper, 8 1/2 × 11".

Frank Jones

Frank Jones was born in 1900 in Clarksville, Texas, with a flap of fetal membrane over his left eye—an omen that, according to a superstition descended from African folklore, allowed him to see into the spirit world. It was only three years earlier that W. E. B. Du Bois had invoked this supernatural “second sight” when introducing his famous concept of double consciousness—a condition of irreconcilable identities experienced by Black Americans in a white supremacist society. Jones bore the brunt of this oppression: The progeny of enslaved cotton pickers and likely an undiagnosed schizophrenic, he spent most of his life incarcerated for serious crimes he probably did not commit. From the beginning of that life, he claimed he was hounded by phantoms, and during his final decade he illustrated these visitations in hundreds of “devil houses,” which he drew with red and blue pencil stubs discarded by administrators at the Huntsville Unit penitentiary in Texas, where he died in 1969. Unable to read or write, he signed his earliest works with his inmate number.

“114591,” a modest survey comprising nine pieces from that brief and haunted career, made a compelling case for an artist who probably claimed that mantle only toward the end of his life. For Jones, these drawings served a practical purpose: that of containing his demons, repeatedly shown with horns, wings, and cloven feet. He enclosed these creatures, referred to as “haints,” in tiered compartments portrayed in cross-sectional views and wreathed in barbed bichromatic patterns. African American quilting traditions come to mind, as do the blues, or “devil’s music,” which could once be heard in prisons throughout the American South. His teeming edifices, distinctly carceral, frequently included clocks, although he could not tell time. (In addition to “doing time,” the motif may allude to a prison job Jones once held as a courthouse clock winder.) The structures in this exhibition were most often rectangular, but some drifted to forms resembling windows, festival floats, and arks. Nearly all of Jones’s haints wear wide, half-moon smiles—deceptive expressions, he explained, intended to lure him into sin. Perhaps this is how Jones felt he and his fellow prisoners were perceived: as soulless nonbeings, devoid of all moral complexity.

Unlike that of many so-called visionary artists, such as Bill Traylor, Jones’s success was not posthumous. After a Huntsville guard jokingly entered his work into an art competition, Jones won the prize and the attention of one of the contest’s judges, a local art adviser who endorsed his work with gusto, even securing him representation with a respectable Dallas gallerist. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the dealer sold his drawings for next to nothing, and they became a sensation among wealthy collectors who only seemed to perceive of them as curios. Although Jones was eventually provided a range of colors with which to make his art, he preferred his signature “smoke and fire” palette of blue and red. An exception could be found in one untitled hellscape, whose hovering scaffold, adorned with fiery pennants and flying fish, was done up in pinks, purples, oranges, and greens—a carnival of captivity.

How to reconcile Jones’s unaesthetic objectives with his work’s status as art? To praise the imagination of his pictures is to risk dismissing the role his reality played in their making. “I draw them as I see them,” he once put it. Rather than promote art’s rehabilitative capacities, Jones recorded a tangled matrix of evil and innocence where appearances and intentions do not overlap. It’s a shame that on top of all of the injustices Jones endured, he is often referred to as “illiterate,” as though his drawings do not possess a sophisticated visual vocabulary—one that will forever fall beyond the realm of our full comprehension. While his second sight can be linked to what Du Bois called the “vast veil,” Jones was the lone sufferer of his vision. His art’s acclaim, and its accursedness, rests in its antithetical relationship to understanding. We can look through Frank Jones’s veil, but we will never truly see.