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ART REVIEW : Insights From Inside: Prison Letters : On view at the LACE bookstore are more than 100 drawings made primarily on envelopes by inmates in California institutions for juveniles.

November 10, 1992|KRISTINE McKENNA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Across town from the County Museum of Art's survey of Outsider art, "Parallel Visions," is a show of outsider art of a decidedly different sort. "Prison Envelope Art: Imagery in Motion," on view at the LACE bookstore through Nov. 22, features more than 100 artworks made primarily on envelopes by inmates in California juvenile institutions and prisons, including Chuckwalla, Soledad, Chino Men's Institution and the L.A. County Jail.

A Latino folk art form that's gone largely unexamined despite the fact that it's existed for more than 50 years (the Smithsonian recently began acquiring it as a legitimate American Indian art form), prison envelope art centers for the most part on drawings made by men on the inside as an expression of love for wives and lovers, who save and cherish the drawings. In this, envelope art serves as a long-distance form of courting. It's also a way for men in constricting circumstances to give free reign to their imaginations and to tender emotions that have no place in the harsh prison milieu, and to develop a persona ("the artist") that affords them some protection and a place in the pecking order of the prison where drawings are used as a form of barter.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 20, 1992 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 4 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Envelope art-- The Smithsonian Institution has begun acquiring panos , drawings on handkerchiefs that are a variation of envelope art that has risen out of Chicano barrios and Southwest prisons. An article in Calendar on Nov. 10 incorrectly stated that the Smithsonian was acquiring the envelope art and incorrectly referred to it as an American Indian art form. A collection of "Prison Envelope Art" is on exhibit at LACE through Sunday.

Most of these artists, who spend anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours creating a drawing, claim they rarely do artwork when they're not in prison; that's unfortunate for them, as some of these men are quite gifted, but good for the style in that it keeps it more pure.

Organized by Dixie Swift and curated in absentia by 26-year-old inmate John (Puppet) Trejo, an artist who's been in prison at Shafter for eight years and whose work is highly respected by those familiar with the form, the show features work dating from 1985 through the present by Southern California artists. Prison envelope art can be found throughout the United States. However, this show, which travels to the Centro Cultural de la Raza on Dec. 4, focuses exclusively on work by local artists. (To protect the artists included and their families, the causes of incarceration are not disclosed.)

Envelope art is, in fact, just the tip of the iceberg of this school. "The men draw on every surface available to them--they draw on the stationery that's supplied to them, on water tumblers, sheets and pillowcases, and on their own bodies," says Swift.

Also included in the show are designs for tattoos, which are illegal inside, and panos --drawings done on the linen handkerchiefs supplied to inmates by the California penal system. These handkerchiefs are the closest approximation to canvas available to the artists, whose work is generally frowned upon by prison authorities. Though the U.S. postal system is perfectly willing to deliver the decorated envelopes, the art form is forbidden by many prison officials who believe inmates are sending coded messages to the outside through their drawings.

The suppression of the form has led to some interesting innovations in regards to materials. One artist melted pieces from a chess set and used a toothbrush to apply the resulting pigment to envelopes, while another used Kool-Aid to tint the ground of his drawing a soft pink. Rendered for the most part in ballpoint pen or pencil, the work is almost exclusively black and white. When one asks artist Abel Alvarado, who spent five years in men's institutions in Chino and Norco, why color is absent from the work, he looks puzzled, then replies, "because color is too . . . colorful!"

It's surprising that this school is monochromatic because in every other respect it has clear links with the intensely colorful street style associated with graffiti, car decal designs, murals and tattoos. As with graffiti, elaborately embellished script is often interwoven with the drawings, which tend to be intensely florid and sensual.

Recurring imagery includes landscapes of the Mexican countryside, peacocks (symbolizing male pride), roses (representing tenderness and beauty), images of barrio life and gang affiliation, the hourglass and Aztec motifs. One also sees hallucinatory evocations of drugs (dripping eyeballs, hypodermics, dragons) that bring underground cartoonist Robert Williams, and the guru of West Coast car culture, Ed (Daddy) Roth, to mind, as well as images of prison life (barbed wire, gun towers), and highly idealized cheesecake visions of women. Like the Varga girls in Playboy magazine, the women in these drawings all have enormous breasts and wasp waists, cascading manes of hair and a come-hither look in their eye. (Increasingly, Latinas find themselves caught up in the penal system and over the past five years they too have begun practicing this art form, however, no work by women artists is included here.)

The pleasures of the flesh are central to much of the work, but the drawings can also be quite philosophical. Religious motifs representing themes of sin and salvation turn up frequently, as do a pair of clowns--one smiling, the other sad--accompanied by the words "cry now, smile later." The stoical resignation of that phrase sums up the underlying mood of all this work.

* LACE Bookstore, 1804 Industrial St., downtown. Wednesday-Friday 11-5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 12-5 p.m. Through Nov. 22. Information: (213) 624-5650.

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