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Raw and Wonderful

Menil gives meaning to outsider art

"In and Out" concludes with works by Texas self-taught artists Frank Jones, Henry Ray Clark (a.k.a. "The Magnificent Pretty Boy") and Ike Morgan. Each produced or continues to make art during incarceration -- Jones and Clark at various times in the Texas prison system, and Morgan in the Austin State Hospital, where he copes with debilitating schizophrenia. Clark's incredibly intricate, densely patterned drawings are composed of converging diagonals or a succession of expanding rings and webs, mazes and mandalas. In the center of this basic structure he creates a compressed universe featuring faces, eyes, stars and snakes entwined with captions that moralize (Drugs Over the World) and instruct (Only My Eyes Can See the Future of Your World). Some are too cryptic to make sense of, yet they seem based on a thoroughly understood, highly ordered imaginary world. Looking at any of these works, one can't help but believe that the fictive world envisioned by Clark is far richer than his actual environment.

Something akin to this desire to escape the constraints of life seems to inspire visionary art. To a considerable degree, the lives of many of these artists were educationally, economically and hence physically circumscribed. Yet the images they project are of confidence and self-command. Whatever limitations they perceived in their lives, they must have found compensation in the spiritual voyages. Significantly, the majority of these artists came to art late in life, an odd twist in a youth-oriented culture. The self-taught, naive or folk artists of every era keep reminding us of what art is really about -- they have no recourse other than the basic imperative to create.

Throughout this exhibition, that creative fire is almost palpable.

"In and Out: Naive, Folk and Self-Taught Artists from the Collection," is on view at the Menil Collection through October 11.

Related Exhibitions and Events: "Spirited Journeys: Self-Taught Texas Artists of the 20th Century," at the Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, August 2 -October 11

Folk Art Society Annual Meeting, Houston, October 8-11

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