Jailed and Drugged
"I am three face from the planet called the Texas Longhorn."
"My name is up side down I am from the Planet II Face."
"I am victory the black warlord of the Planet Victory we win all wars."
It is with these inked declarations that Henry Ray Clark -- a.k.a. the Magnificent Pretty Boy -- asserts the existence of his private universe. Each accompanies an intensely decorated drawing done with ballpoint on a manila envelope. The drawings are similar, repetitive variations on a theme; usually, a stylized head or double head floats in a space framed by detailed, asymmetrical pattern work that's embedded with bits of an iconography that includes spaceships, eyeballs, snakes, birds and weapons.
Though some experts might argue that Clark's work should be presented just as any contemporary art would be, most would place him in a special category. Clark, who spent his youth gambling and whoring on Houston's streets, which is where he picked up the handle Pretty Boy, began drawing in prison at age 41. It was then, he says, that "the pencil went crazy in my hand." The vast majority of his work has been done during several periods of incarceration -- those in his current show at Brasil, "Jailhouse Drawings," have been completed since September 1995, when Clark landed in the Harris County jail on a drug charge. He says he doesn't understand his work, and that he cannot alter it at will. Clark falls under the rubric of a "visionary," "folk," "naive," "primitive" or "outsider" artist -- each term carries its own level of condescension or pretension -- and experts in the field have recognized him as a master. Since being "discovered" at a prison art show in 1989, Clark's work has found its way into the Smithsonian's collection, as well as many important galleries.
When an artist has been established as a "visionary," or one who creates in relative isolation, it's difficult not to invent a whole new criteria for looking at his work, and it's even more difficult not to condescend. A viewer might have a particularly strong tendency to marvel -- if the artist is free from formal training or art world exposure, one can be impressed by his "natural" understanding of form, balance and color, or with his untrammeled expressiveness. Other aspects of the work are more difficult to evaluate artistically -- it's easier to look at it in psychoanalytical terms, both on a personal and a Jungian, collective-unconscious level. In fact, one of the first recognized visionary artists, the Swiss schizophrenic Adolf Wslfli, was the subject of much scholarship because it was thought that such study would reveal something about the nature of creativity. Excitement over Wslfli led the artist Jean Dubuffet to start his collection of what he termed "L'Art Brut," heralding a long tradition of visionary art's impact on contemporary artists.
However, the reverse is not true -- contemporary art is not supposed to influence the visionary artist, whose "purity" is often carefully guarded by various art world agents. The visionary's work rarely develops linearly -- Clark is not solving representational or expressive problems from one work to the next, and consequently, the works cannot fail.
Clark's art is not strategic, but assertive. His grandiose ego ("Sometimes my time is beautiful and magnificent like me -- the Magnificent Pretty Boy" reads one drawing of a clock, the prisoner's constant companion), which so often stands in contrast to his actual situation, never apologizes or argues. Clark calls his drawings "something beautiful for people to look at," but they are more than that. They are a tour of a galaxy that Clark claims to visit while he sleeps, and the art itself can hold interest for a viewer only as long as the galaxy does. In fact, the words emblazoned at the top of each drawing are often more interesting than the drawings themselves. Clark's visual conventions might be compared to the "primitive" styles of Africa, Oceania and Asia, or to Jung's archetypes, but the boasts that accompany them are amalgamations of biblical, messianic and pop culture language. In one drawing, a head spidered with kinky locks is featured between wheels reading "World Greatest Entertainer." The legend is "I am Michael J. I bought my own planet, I name it after me -- the greatest."
One side of creativity is world creation, and at this Clark excels. I'd venture that another part is narrative, the story and what we learn through the story. In this regard, Clark's work is static. There are characters -- Elvira, Queen of the Weird, or Perfection from the planet Perfection -- but no action. Just as there is no progression in the visual language employed -- and there doesn't necessarily have to be -- there is no action, conflict, deliverance or gain. The characters are incarcerated on their planets, made in the image of their creator.
If it's true that you've gotta have a gimmick, then New York artist Fred Tomaselli's is more tenable than most. Tomaselli loots his friends' medicine cabinets for pills, as well as gathering hemp and tobacco leaves, morning glory seeds (which contain lysergic acid), ephedra and mushrooms for his drug-laden, resin-encased paintings. He incorporates these chemistry-altering substances into designs that range from op art perception tricks to William Morris-esque floral patterns. In some works, the pills and capsules give him a palette that's unmistakably medical: the sour orange of baby aspirin, the unnatural blues of Cardizem and Ornex, the dull red of Advil. In others, such as Green on Red, faded hemp leaves shimmer like a color field, accented with bright green and framed in deep red.
Tomaselli says that his paintings, some of which are influenced by hippie kitsch and car culture, let drugs work their magic on the eye rather than on the body. He calls his paintings "rectangles of utopia," claiming to have adopted the Romantic view that a painting is a window to another place rather than a mirror of self and society. But in the works now on view at the Rice University Art Gallery, Tomaselli's optimism is as garish and off-color as his hues. Though the exhibit is titled "The Urge to Be Transported," it's not simply an expression of that urge, which Tomaselli argues is fundamental to human experience, but a critical look at it. The fact that the works often go too far to disavow their own cynicism is their weakness.
The piece Behind Your Eyes is a schematic of the human nervous system, one filled with aspirin, antacid, acetaminophen, ephedrine and saccharine. This is one of the most literal, you-are-what-you-eat pieces in the show, and it's definitely not a transportive mirror. Twelve Chemical Celestial Portraits is a cluster of photograms for which Tomaselli asked 12 friends, each one born under a different sign of the zodiac, to list all the mood-altering chemicals, from chocolate to the more exotic, they've ever ingested. Then he took pills or bits of those substances and laid them out in the form of a star chart containing the appropriate birth constellation of the subject, made a photogram and labeled the white space left by each substance.
The result is both titillating and saddening -- a confessional catalog of escapism. By linking drugs to the stars, Tomaselli appears to be celebrating that which society considers illicit, saying that the urge to be transported is beautiful, natural. It's in our charts.
But there is a dissonance between this chart and the medical chart of Behind Your Eyes. It's as if Tomaselli is unwilling to lose his flower-child faith in the drug culture (wow, look at the stars) while portraying a '90s garden of designer hybrids (do I need a pink or a brown pill today, Doc?). When it comes to drug use, he makes no distinctions of degree or purpose -- the urge to be transported is always noble.
In other works, Tomaselli's non-didactic stance is more successful at addressing the role of drugs in our culture. In pieces such as the geometric Untitled (Rug), the floral pattern Super Plant and the optical play X Will Fade, manufactured and natural mind-alterers alike become part of the wallpaper, part of the social fabric of our lives. These works are not judgmental or resigned, they're playful, and in their use of everyday substances such as tobacco, they make do with what's at hand, so to speak. These pieces prove that Tomaselli need not moralize to get his point across.
In two landscape works, Tomaselli's unbelievable optimism rears up once again. Double Landscape shows a perfect, sun-dappled, movie-ending scene framed by a morass of psychedelic tendrils dotted with saccharine, while 49 Palms Oasis depicts a California beach at night; a digital pattern of color and pills is overlaid on the scene like a light imprint on the back of your eyelids.
Though both scenes seem impossible to accept as anything but kitsch, nowhere is any intended irony present. It's as if Tomaselli is trying to tell us he loves saccharine and Disneyland. But these paintings are scary. Far from being windows on utopia, they are mirrors that reflect the pap that TV dreams are made of. Instead of leading away from the humdrum, the tendrils of purple and orange in Double Landscape point straight to it.
"Jailhouse Drawings" will be on display through October 31 at Brasil,2606 Dunlavy,528-1993.
"The Urge to Be Transported"will be ondisplay through November 3 at the Rice University Art Gallery,6100 Main Street, 527-6069.
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