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|ESOPUS SPACE | 64 West Third Street | New York | NY 10002 | 6/3 - 7/15/2010|
|TAGGED : ► PRESS RELEASE + INTERVIEW + THE PYRAMID CLUB + CODE + SLIDESHOW
|SEE ► SLIDESHOW|
An exhibition of never-before-seen photographs of the extraordinarily inventive drag queens who performed at New York’s legendary Pyramid Club in the mid-1980s.
PRESS RELEASE: New York, NY (April 26, 2010): Esopus Space is pleased to present “Clayton Patterson: Pyramid Portraits,” an exhibition of never-before-seen photographs taken by the artist, documentarian, and community activist in the mid-’80s at New York’s legendary Pyramid Club.
Patterson’s subjects were the extraordinarily inventive drag queens who performed at the “Whispers”cabaret every Sunday night at the Pyramid Club at 101 Avenue A. Like his countless portraits of hardcore punks, squatters, junkies, rabbis, tenement dwellers, and beat cops, these photographs document—and celebrate—the denizens of a dynamic, radically diverse Lower East Side, a community that would soon be decimated by the AIDS epidemic (and in the ensuing years, by relentless gentrification and development of the neighborhood).
“Up to that point, drag had been about referencing movie stars like Bette Davis or Judy Garland,” notes Patterson in an accompanying interview, “But the queens at the Pyramid Club invented entirely fictitious characters.” Those characters, embodying everything from space aliens to goth punks to suburban housewives, were created by performers including Tabboo, Hapi Phace, Sun PK [née Peter Kwaloff], RuPaul, Maze, John Sex, and International Chrysis, all of whom posed regularly for Patterson’s portraits. The photos, which were taken by Patterson in the dressing room of the club over the course of several years, chart the boundless creativity of these artists, who, with little or no money, managed every week to create new person as, each one more outrageous and compelling than the one before. Patterson calls his subjects “availabilists” (after the term coined by performance artist and musician Kembra Pfahler) who utilized everything from shards of broken safety glass to abandoned lampshades to create the ultimate artworks of the period—themselves.
About the artist: Clayton Patterson moved to New York City from his native Calgary in 1979 and has since amassed an exhaustive photo, video, and audio archive of New York’s Lower East Side, including ground-breaking videos of the Tompkins Square Park police riots in 1988. He has published several books, including Captured: A Film/Video History of the Lower East Side and Resistance: A Radical Political and Social History of the Lower East Side, and most recently exhibited his work at Kinz+Tillou Fine Art in New York. Captured, a documentary about Patterson by Dan Levin, Ben Solomon, and Jenner Furst, was released in 2009.
Esopus Space is an exhibition and performance venue operated by the nonprofit Esopus FoundationLtd., which also publishes Esopus magazine. The gallery is open to the public Mondays,Tuesdays, and Thursdays from 12-5pm, and also by appointment. For more information, visitesopusspace.org, send inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call Tod Lippy at 212-473-0919.
AN INTERVIEW WITH CLAYTON PATTERSON BY TOD LIPPY
|This interview was conducted in New York City on February 10, 2010|
Tod Lippy: What led you to the Pyramid Club during the mid-’80s?
How long did you continue with this?
In interviews, you’ve said you were drawn to New York because you always felt like an outsider, and New York seemed like a place where you could fit in.
Can you describe the scene at the Pyramid Club in those years?
I can’t get over how incredibly inventive all of the different looks are in these portraits.
It’s interesting that you mention childhood, because one of the most striking things about these portraits is this very palpable sense of joy inherent in them—although the personas are incredibly creative and original, there’s an element of “playing dress-up” to them that’s completely endearing. Everyone seems to be having a blast.
Copyright © 2010 Clayton Patterson and the Esopus Foundation Ltd.
"THE PYRAMID CLUB" BY IRIS ROSE
The Pyramid Club was the brainchild of Bobby Bradley, Alan Mace and Victor Sapienza, employees of mainstream nightclub Interferon. In December 1981, they approached a man known to them only as Richie about throwing a party in the largely unused back room of the bar at 101 Avenue A. It was a resounding success due to a combination of factors: a fun crowd of hip people, good music, short performances that interrupted the dancing, and dancers on the bar in unusually ambiguous drag, self-consciously playing with the idea of gender. The party's success lead to more events, and soon Richie suggested that Bradley and friends expand to a daily schedule.
Soon after that, Brian Butterick was hired as "security", but within a month he became Bradley's assistant, booking bands on Black Tuesdays, devoted to alternative music. Each night of the week acquired its own personality and crowd. Sundays had Cafe Iguana, an evening of off-beat cabaret acts; Thursdays were "Theme Parks," total-club events in which the audience was surrounded by an environmental performance; Mondays were for theatrical events; and Fridays and Saturdays, popular bands performed, but with unusual opening acts.
From June 1982 to June 1983, Monday nights were devoted to John Jesurun's weekly serial, Chang in a Void Moon. Unable to acquire the money his next film, sculptor and filmmaker Jesurun approached Bradley about the possibility of doing a weekly serial. Bradley was immediately supportive despite Jesurun’s lack of theatre experience. The small audience for the first episode was appreciative, but the Pyramid staff was enthusiastic. According to Jesurun, Bradley was the first person ever to praise his writing skill. The cast originally was comprised mostly of friends who had appeared in Jesurun's films, but later included Steve Buscemi, Mark Boone, Jr., Anna Kohler, Frank Maya, John Kelly, and for a brief time, Ethyl Eichelberger, playing a man. Chang received critical attention, not only in The Village Voice and The East Village Eye, but in theatre publications like The Drama Review. Originally intended to run for nine weeks, Chang ultimately ran for a year. This was followed by a European tour of selected episodes, after which Jesurun began to direct full-length shows at La MaMa and the Performing Garage.
The only cast member Bradley had suggested for Chang, John Kelly, was one of the bar dancers on Pyramid’s first night. Kelly was an integral part of the Pyramid family, appearing in countless shows. But in contrast to the wild energy of most acts at the Pyramid, Kelly's solo performances were notable for their quiet intensity. Dressed in elegant and tasteful drag, Kelly would lip-synch Maria Callas arias, with enormous stage presence and skillful execution. Over time Kelly acquired the confidence actually to sing the arias himself, in an eerie countertenor voice that became his trademark and the foundation of his later success.
Even more than Kelly, the greatest inspiration to the Pyramid drag performers was Ethyl Eichelberger. He had previously been a character actor with the Trinity Square Repertory Theatre and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Eichelberger, who had his first name legally changed to Ethyl, portrayed great women from history—Nefertiti, Lucretia Borgia, Catherine the Great—using outrageous costumes, original songs (accompanying himself on the accordian), and manicallypaced monologues peppered with anachronistic jokes and ad libs. The most inspiring things about Eichelberger were his refreshing humility and unflagging energy. He could be seen at all hours, wheeling a shopping cart loaded with props and costumes through the streets of the Lower East Side to his storefront home.
It is difficult to describe the contribution of emcee Ann Craig, yet she was an important part of the club's early appeal. She would introduce an act with such sincerity and enthusiasm that she not only created an atmosphere of expectation for the audience but also a feeling of inspiration among the performers.
The bar dancers became a signature of Pyramid, and they put as much care into the construction of their costumes as did the performers on stage. The Pyramid often had an over-all theme for the evening, and dancers would out-do each other constructing the best Outer Space, Trailer Park, or Civil War outfit.
Although the Pyramid was essentially a gay bar, the crowd at the Pyramid could be astonishingly diverse. Among the more memorable regulars were an Asian dwarf and an elderly man who loved to dance whom many patrons mistook for William Burroughs. And the performers were as diverse as the crowd. The Pyramid presented a constantly changing vaudeville of unusual acts, ranging from the dehumanized shapes in Disturbed Form Theatre, to the gigantic puppets of Pierre Lamarche, whose flailing limbs nearly filled the space. Most of the successful performances were extreme in some way—in size, volume, intensity, shock value, or just sheer nerve. Stephen Tashjian, who performs under the name Tabboo, punctuated his "patriotic tribute" to America by setting stuffed poodles on fire and throwing them through a hoop.
Theme parties had been a major part of the earlier Club 57, but the Pyramid gave them a new spin. The Theme Park most often cited is "El Cuspidor," a Central American theme night, when radical South American nuns commandeered the deejay booth and demanded that nothing be played but Joan Baez records.
When Chang ended its run in June 1983, a number of unusual theatrical productions filled the Monday night slot, most notably Kestutis Nakas' Titus Andronicus. When Nakas approached Bradley about doing an extremely bloody yet comic production of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus in serial form, his experience was similar to John Jesurun's—Bradley was unexpectedly enthusiastic. Nakas assembled an "all-star cast" by Pyramid standards: Ann Magnusun, John Kelly, John Sex, Mark Oates, Bill Rice, Steve Buscemi, and Mark Boone, Jr. The series lasted five weeks, one act per week. Titus Andronicus earned Nakas not only the respect of the Pyramid staff but also a job teaching at NYU in the Experimental Theatre Wing. Nakas went on to create a variety of Pyramid productions, including a Theme Park with the club decorated as the interior of the human body; and The Andrew Carnegie Story, which ended with Nakas, as Carnegie, passing out real money to the crowd.
1984 brought increased media attention, from the Wall Street Jounal, "Entertainment Tonight", and People magazine, among others. This in turn brought larger, but less tolerant, crowds. As a result, Butterick began to book more bands and less performance. Bradley was becoming increasingly detached from the daily management of the club, but increasingly interested in drugs. As time had passed, hard drugs had become a part of the Pyramid scene, with performers in the Theme Parks sometimes paid in cocaine. In 1984, Bradley was ousted by the rest of the staff, though he received a generous severance payment of $15,000. Alan Mace, who took over his duties, declared that any staff member caught using hard drugs on the premises would be fired on the spot.
The departure of Bradley spelled the end of Cafe Iguana, the remaining night for eccentric performance acts. Sunday took on a different character with "Whispers," an overtly gay night intended to parody suburban gay discos. The emcee for Whispers was Hapi Phace (Mark Rizzo), an unlikely drag queen, over 6 feet tall with an unusually large face and a deep voice, but with a natural gift of gab. The most successful act to emerge from Whispers was Lypsinka, the creation of John Epperson. Instead of imitating Joan Crawford or Judy Garland, Epperson created a composite of all the standard divas, and more. His performances were always well-rehearsed and executed with flawless timing. Epperson also created two large-scale productions for the Pyramid, Ballet of the Dolls and Dial M for Model, with big casts of Pyramid favorites. The productions were successful enough to have subsequent runs at La MaMa, which lead Epperson toward a very successful career Off-Broadway.
A new group of drag performers appeared on the scene from Atlanta in 1984, among them Lady Bunny, and found a receptive audience at Whispers. On Labor Day 1985, Lady Bunny organized and hosted the Wigstock Festival in Tompkins Square Park, which drew approximately 500 people and included John Kelly singing “Woodstock” as Joni Mitchell. Wigstock later moved to the Christopher St. piers, where, at its peak in 1995, it attracted a crowd of 50,000.
By the second half of the 1980’s, the Pyramid was no longer a laboratory for experimental performance, and by 1989, even its gay component was in jeopardy. At one point Hapi Phace found himself managing the club on Sunday nights after all the rest of the original staff had left or been fired. The heyday of the Pyramid was over. "It became a place where things had happened," says Phace, "not where we were helping to make it happen."
Review by We Are Code
|Published in : WE ARE CODE | New York | June 22, 2010|
In the 1980s, the East Village served as New York’s counter culture epicenter. In sharp contrast to the overpriced and yuppie-occupied East Village of today, heroin addicts, squatters and poor artists filled the neighborhood. ► The Pyramid Club was a nightlife staple, attracting the East Village’s bohemian population. Debbie Harry, Andy Warhol and Madonna are among the more famous faces who showed up in the club, which held hardcore and drag queen nights.
Lower East Side denizen and resident documentary photographer and filmmaker ► Clayton Patterson shot the Pyramid Club drag queens of the 80s, capturing the eccentric and over-the-top make-up and costumes. Patterson’s portraits from that era are now on display at Esopus Space in the Greenwich Village. Documenting Style recently talked to Patterson about his experience photographing that subculture.
How did you discover the Pyramid Club?
What made you want to photograph the drag queens who frequented the club?
What years did you document the club?
What was the scene like there?
Compare the style of that era to the state of New York style at present.
What’s next for you?