The Drawers - Bronson, The Prison Drawings Essay by Ben Portis

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Bronson, The Prison Drawings - Forward by Ben Portis

 His Body is His Temple, His Mind His Tempest

What impress me first off about the drawings of Charles Bronson are the tender spots. The confines in which he has been held for most of the past 35 years are defiantly transmogrified by his sensitive perception and imagination. The play of meagre light on the surfaces of steel-clad doors and walls connotes his atmospheric domain and reconciled, contemplative, philosophical tranquility. The super-definition of windows, airshafts, ventilation grilles, peepholes, keyholes, locks and even rivet heads connotes the futile permeability of these same walls, passage through which has been categorically denied. The forbidden rest-of-the-world might as well be a spectral speck for all Bronson knows or cares. In his quietest moments, Bronson senses the life span and free will of a companion spider, or mouse, or bird. He is an immortal. 

We all inhabit our prisons. Sometimes this is referred to as the mind. Those who conform to voluntary inhibition are left at liberty. Those who do not may end up in maximum security, where unruly bodies are ram-packed back into their unwilling, often unaccommodating minds. Bronson, having sledged his body up into an intimidating, irreducible mass, saved his mind for better things, such as poetry, and art, and Joyce. 

These epistolary drawings, fugitive, head-strong love letters to a woman their author has never met, consist of text equally as image. Sometimes they tirade, sometimes they instructively caption and annotate the monotonous day-to-day debasement, sometimes they hallucinate beneath the lowest depths to which men will sink. Block letters shout out the horrors - PAIN, INSANITY, RESTRAINT! Hatchling wardens and trustees, drawn as Bosch-like half-formed or quarter-formed embryos, demonize the already bedevilled Bronson. Sometimes you just got to make a break for it, so just as many times the letters are his means of escape, pervading, encroaching into the imagination of the imagined beloved. Is this a form of consensual, intellectual rape? Maybe, yet Bronson seems willing to give as well as to take. He thinks about becoming a mortal again, when one day will idly waste into the next, he retires to his mortgaged cell lined with past-life prison mementos and floral wallpaper, lets his rock body soften with age and soda pop, and delightedly gets scolded or cuckolded by his princess.

Bronson reflects on his creativity on the reverse of several drawings, a more conventional side of his correspondence in which he sends comparatively tamer thoughts and encouragement to Joyce. “Some cartoons kinda grab your neck and squeeze a little to[o] tight. This one comes crashing out of my brain and flows through my pen and I'm laughing as it takes shape.” A few years later, “Later, future, in time, I shall do my art in oil, big canvas, the size of cell door, this time, present, I am just 'preparing' for the big one.” Or: 

          Have you noticed how my art is progressing?
          Hands, fingers, expressions!
          It's coz I'm relaxed!
          I'm settled in a routine!
          I'm in peace! Silence!
          It's like a cemetry!

Joyce noticed and kept it all, the uninhibited poetic notes and graphic observations of a self-styled madman, laughing all the way to the crematorium. This is insider art by a profoundly pathological insider.

Ben Portis, June 14, 2009
Copyright © 2009