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THE ALTERNATIVE UNIVERSE OF CLAYTON PATTERSON
By ANGEL ORENSANZ Ph.D.
New York, 2004
A Canadian born artist (Calgary, Alberta, 1948) and long term resident of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Clayton Patterson is publicly identified as the visual chronicler of that neighborhood and a permanent point of reference. By observing him both at close range and from the distance you notice that he is operates with parameters al of his own. The neighborhood is not and has not ever been split between rich and poor, powerful and powerless. It is made up mostly of a middle working class and a low working class with a intense progressive self consciousness. The real divide lays between the highly educated and self highly educated and the culturally deprived and culturally uninvolved. Clayton traverses both sides of the rails with ease and hourly regularity.
But even in the most diversified, inclusive, pluralistic and opinionated neighborhood in America, our character strikes a swath of his own. We could call that role, based exclusively on circumstantial evidence, a “Nostradamus type”. That is a type extremely well informed and updated but processing and interpreting information on an time scale that is not linear (monotheistic, messianic, universalist) or cyclical (hedonistic, new age, neopagan) but eschatological (prophetic, corrosive, nietzchean ). He has developed a lifework that runs counter his colleague culture- types: his output and method of intervention is not a calculated series of stepping stones towards the uptown audiences and eventual relocation. He does not use the bubbling, incandescent local scene to build some ulterior platform, but as an end in itself. And finally, his “values” seem to rotate around some manichean center, remote and removed from the standard mythology of the “permantly new’, the “incrementally progressive” and the “obsessively fresh”. His core could well circle around the arcane, the sartrian and the eternally contrarian.
The most discernable components of his universe are his photography & photo archive; his body art and visual arts, and his Outlaw Art gallery & museum. Clayton Patterson is first and foremost a photographer. He has built a collection of over half a million pictures of, mostly, the Lower East Side. Again, based on circumstantial evidence, his photography is a genre of his own. His are images of instant situations, unplanned and unscripted. Split second takes on situations: hat are public and available to anybody, but that burst into our daily routine. The various characters of these urban scenes look all in the wrong place at the wrong time. Only the lens makes them and the surrounding buildings and street furniture endowed with meaning and purpose. The image coming out of the lab makes them of a story. They all seem to be part of a scene of a crime in progress or of potential crime or local epic. There is a look of dark truth in their faces; their gestures are compromising or, worse, ambivalent. Both the public officers and the public seem off guard and questionable. There are observed moments in the life of a rally, of a facade, of a specific group, of a police intervention, of a public dispute, of an accident. Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine and WeeGee produced iconic moments in the life of the struggling proletarians of a “neo-realistic” texture, kind of Roberto Rossellini or Pietro Germi. Clayton’s image are more “cinema verite”, and film noir. His pictures are not journalistic but activist. They are forensic, not dramatic or emblematic. He documents through multiplicity nor through transcendence. Clayton knows that they all may end up as exhibits in court papers or as basic support of conflicting arguments in the public discourse.
This photo seriality, that carries the warholian ethos, anticipated and now parallels his video work. He may have been the first street video documentarian to bring the raw images of the outside into the rarified and sanitized world of court proceedings and exhibits making plaintiffs, defendants, judges and attorney into semiologists analyzing frames and sequences like DNA. The American court and legal systems would never be the same. There is a well diversified but to some degree an identifiable a range of dress codes and a certain Lower East Side look. That is another of Clayton’s battlefronts, in pushing a disrupture of the conventional presentations of the self in society. For years he has been promoting concepts that now are more and more mainstream. He has been the active force behind some of the main publications on body art culture, such as Pushing Ink and Modern Primitives. And developed a legendary series of baseball caps. laced with skulls and serpents. Those seemingly accidental elements of the presentation of the self, like any other one, are never denotative but connotative of perception and self perception.
Clayton’s headquarters are located on Essex St. right in the heart of the Lower East Side, between the East Village and the Lower East Side proper. His building houses his fable collection of photographs and tapes on police actions, fires, politics, art and artists, poets and poetry, synagogues, religious services, Santeria, Krishna, buildings, doorways, graffiti, drugs, tattoos, drag queens, social events, street actions, community board meetings, funerals and most other aspect of public life. And next to his fabled collection is his art gallery Clayton Gallery & Outlaw Art Museum, since 1986. “Outlaw” does not refer to criminality but to art that has been involved in some kind of litigation or court/police action. Most artists represented in the gallery and museum is outside the mainstream. They include Charles Gatewood, a photographer and author of Pushing Ink with Spider Webb; Peter Missing, originator of the Missing Foundation Punk band; Baba Raul Canizares, author of a number of books on Santeria, among them Walking with the Night, Cuban Santeria, for which Clayton help Baba develop a magic modern system.