His work is concerned with the truth, with facts. He has relentlessly devoted himself to a kind of culture that examines authority. –Ai Weiwei
Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it. –Vladimir Mayakovsky
Howl! Happening is pleased to present Clayton Patterson's Outside In. An incubator of talent and a bridge to a new generation interested in the vanishing history and idealism of the East Village/LES, Patterson's exhibition features the full range of his artistic practice, including sculpture, photographs, fashion, and books, as well as paintings by wife and lifelong collaborator, Elsa Rensaa.
THE HOWL! ARTS COMMUNITY INCLUDES:
HOWL! Arts, Inc. is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the past and celebrating the contemporary culture of the East Village and Lower East Side. Howl! Arts creates opportunities for artists to produce and show their work, and engages in activities aimed at improving the quality of life for artists and members of the creative community. Inspired by the late poet-philosopher Allen Ginsberg—a lifelong spokesperson for peace, justice, and freedom of expression—Howl! Arts provides artists and audiences with the tools to join in the creative process; a window into the heritage and social history of the community; and outlets for the flourishing of diverse cultures which are the signatures of this vital neighborhood.
Howl! Happening: an Arturo Vega Project - Gallery / Performance Space / Archive: Like the neighborhood in which it was born and the Howl! Festival that began it all, Howl! Happening is a space of untamed creativity. Howl! Happening curates exhibitions and stages live events that showcase the historical legacy and contemporary culture of the East Village and Lower East Side. It is also dedicated to preserving the archives of artists who spent their creative lives working in this vibrant community and houses the Estates of artist Arturo Vega and renowned performance artist, Tom Murrin aka “The Alien Comic.” The history of the East Village is still being written and Howl Happening aims to shine a light on the mix of rock and roll, social justice, art and performance, community activism, gay rights and culture, immigrants, fashion, and nightlife in the heart of the community where groundbreaking creativity and influential ideas still thrive.
Howl! Festival: Named the Village Voice’s Best Outdoor Festival, Howl Festival is the quintessential community event celebrating the East Village and Lower East Side. Held inside and around Tompkins Square Park, the spirit of Allen Ginsberg comes alive as more than 350 artists, poets, and performers, including youthful new talent, light up the Main and Kid’s Stages and transform the Park into a participatory artwork infused with the creative energy, flamboyance, and panache that’s the hallmark of the neighborhood. A three-ring circus of wonderment and amusement, HOWL Festival has always been entirely FREE.
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CLAYTON PATTERSON + ART RETROSPECTIVE + HOWL
Video by Simon J. Heath Published on Youtube, July 17, 2015 | 2:33 min
One of the last artists in downtown New York, Clayton Patterson, talks about his latest gallery exhibition that includes the rarely scene work of his wife, Elsa Rensaa.
CLAYTON PATTERSON BRIDGING THE GAP A FRONT DOOR SERIES
Video by Kevin Harris Published on Youtube, August 14, 2015 | 13:12 min
Clayton Patterson making a statement in 1988. Photo by Ai Weiwei
Howl Happening is presenting “Outside IN,” an exhibition of Lower East Side documentarian Clayton Patterson’s photography and art. The opening reception is Fri., June 19, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., at the gallery, at 6 E. First St., between the Bowery and Second Ave. The exhibition runs through Aug. 14. Also in the show will be paintings by Elsa Rensaa. The opening will be streamed live, free at @ howlarts.org .
“The exhibition goes beyond Patterson’s work as a documentarian to examine the full range of his artistic practice, including sculpture, photographs, fashion and books, as well as paintings by his wife and lifelong collaborator, Elsa Rensaa,” a press release for the show notes.
Patterson has been documenting Downtown since he and Rensaa moved from Canada to New York in 1979. They briefly lived in Soho, whose art scene Patterson found to be pretentious, before moving to the then-gritty Lower East Side.
“Like the works of Jacob Riis and Weegee before him, his photos capture moments of real life as they’re happening, unglamorized and unromanticized,” the gallery notes. “The ‘Front Door’ photo-portraits on view at the gallery present a kind of mosaic of the neighborhood as it was, one face at a time: tenement kids and homeless people, poets and politicians, drug dealers and drag queens, rabbis and santeros, beat cops, graffiti writers, hookers, junkies, punks, anarchists, squatters, mystics and crackpots.”
Patterson refers to this project — in which he took photos of people in front of his Essex St. home’s front door — as “the people’s photography.”
Also in the show are sculptural cabinets crafted from artifacts Patterson found on the street, ranging from toys, teeth and bullets to scraps of posters and postcards.
“As an artist, you have to use what life offers you,” Patterson said. “It’s about remaining creative and following that path.”
Also on view are the distinctive Clayton Caps he and Rensaa manufactured.
More recently, Patterson has organized and edited several massive books on the storied neighborhood’s history as explained by people who lived it and shaped it: “Captured,” on the L.E.S. as an incubator for underground film and avant-garde video; “Resistance,” on its radical political and social history; and “Jews: A People’s History of the Lower East Side.”
CLAYTON PATTERSON’S "OUTSIDE IN" EXHIBIT
Published in: DAMEHT, New York, June 19, 2015
Through August 14th, Howl Gallery is showing new and old art from our friend, Clayton Patterson, and his wife, Elsa Rensaa. Included in the show, aptly named “Outside IN,” are sculptures, Clayton Caps, prints, photographs, and work from our DAMEHT x Clayton Patterson collaborations.Clayton has been a leading creative force in the Lower East Side for decades. “Outside IN” showcases Clayton and Elsa’s completely original work, reminding viewers why Clayton continues to push the boundaries of art, more than 30 years after his arrival in New York. Must see! ► Read exhibit’s catalog
“CLAYTON PATTERSON OUTSIDE IN” AT HOWL! ARTS
By Ed Litvak Published in: The Lo-Down, New York, June 29, 2015
At HOWL! Happening, the new not-for-profit gallery at 6 East 1st St., there’s an interesting retrospective featuring the works of longtime Lower East Side artists Clayton Patterson and Elsa Rensaa. “Clayton Patterson Outside In” will be on display through August 14.
The exhibit goes beyond his familiar documentary work, showcasing sculpture, fashion and books, alongside paintings by Resnaa, Patterson’s wife and collaborator. From the press materials:
Widely known for his immense archive of life on the Lower East Side—hundreds of thousands of photographs, interviews, countless hours of film and video footage—the current exhibition points to the democratic nature and true intention of the artist: to use whatever tools necessary, whatever medium is at hand, to traverse art and activism to create a singular artistic vision of the people, place, social action, and creativity of the neighborhood. When Patterson and Rensaa moved to the Lower East Side from Canada in 1979, he began to document the neighborhood in photographs, video and audiotape, and collected ephemera. “I didn’t realize it at the time,” he would tell the New York Times some thirty years later, “but I was capturing the last of the wild, free, outlaw, utopian, visionary spirit of the Lower East Side.” … The Front Door photo-portraits on view at the gallery present a kind of mosaic of the neighborhood as it was, one face at a time: tenement kids and homeless people, poets and politicians, drug dealers and drag queens, rabbis and santeros, beat cops, graffiti writers, hookers, junkies, punks, anarchists, squatters, mystics and crackpots. Patterson refers to this project as “the people’s photography,” a phrase that captures the quality of mutuality and commonality. Similarly, the elegant sculptural cabinets in the show are crafted from artifacts found on the street—a “critique of the critique” about outsider/insider and taste in contemporary art. Toys, teeth, bullets, and scraps of posters, postcards and other urban archeological detritus find their way into these sculptures painted in bright, pinball colors, “As an artist, you have to use what life offers you,” he says. “Making sculpture, taking photographs, writing, painting—it’s about remaining creative and following that path.
HOWL! Arts is dedicated to preserving the artistic past of the East Village and Lower East Side and celebrating the neighborhood’s creative vitality today. The gallery, which opened earlier this year, aims to protect the archives of this community’s artists and to stage contemporary exhibitions. Ted Riederer is gallery director. The space is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday.
CLAYTON PATTERSON RAISES THE GHOSTS OF THE LOWER EAST SIDE'S
ANARCHIC PAST OUTLAW ART
Patterson’s Outside In retrospective at Howl Arts bridges back to the grassroots creativity of pre-gentrification NYC.
Artist Clayton Patterson forms a connection between today’s sanitised Lower East Side and its grittier, anarchic past when some of New York’s most iconic artists, such as The Velvet Underground, William S. Burroughs and Madonna, rubbed shoulders with junkies, gang members and corrupt cops.
When Clayton and his partner Elsa Rensaa arrived from western Canada 1979, they experienced a sensory overload and set about documenting the area’s unparalleled conflict and creativity.
Over the following decades, Clayton went on to not only document life on the LES, but actively contribute to it, building bridges to maintain and disseminate culture, highlighting the grassroots creativity overlooked by the art establishment through his gallery, and standing together with the community to protect the neighbourhood’s alternative – often misunderstood – way of life.
“I first met Clayton in 1988 during the Tompkins Square riot,” explains artist Ai Weiwei, whose shot of Clayton with ‘Dump Koch’ written on his hands for a court date was his first picture published in the New York Times. “His work is concerned with the truth, with facts. He has relentlessly devoted himself to a kind of culture that examines authority. He has devoted himself to recording what is really going on, to giving his true account.” A genuine outlaw artist, Clayton’s work is not for the consumption of the rich or the elite, but for people from the block who mainstream society often deems transgressive. “I really like his style,” continues Weiwei. “His style is like no-style. I should say it is antistyle.”
Clayton’s role as an activist, photographer, filmmaker, local historian and curator sometimes overshadow his prolific output as an artist, but his new retrospective Outside In at Howl Arts lets his work take centre stage – alongside paintings by his co-conspirator, Elsa.
Clayton Patterson: Outside In – featuring paintings by Elsa Rensaa is at Howl Arts, NYC, through August 14.
CLAYTON PATTERSON DIDN’T ONLY DOCUMENT THE LES WITH PHOTOS
By Aymann Ismail Published in: ANIMAL, New York, July 17, 2015
Long before the Sugar Sweet Sunshine bakery opened on Rivington Street and rents in the area soared through the roof, legendary street photographer Clayton Patterson has been shooting the Lower East Side. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the neighborhood was notorious as a magnet for crime, drugs, and prostitution and the lensman was there, preserving some of its history through his methodological documentation of all the grime and glam. But Patterson’s photo-centric attributes don’t represent his only creative output, he’s also a prolific artist and his work is currently on display at the Howl! Gallery for an exhibit he entitled, “Outside In.”
“People know me through my photography but the reality is, that I’ve made a lot of art through the years.” Patterson told ANIMAL. For example, did you know he painted the Houston – Bowery wall back in the 90s without permission? It’s true. In addition to photos, he has been cataloguing downtown by collecting contraband and other objects that characterized the neighborhood, such as hypodermic needles, drug baggies, packets of lube, and bullets. Seeing the urban artifacts assembled and haphazardly poking out his sculptures was like staring at a time capsule, like his tribute to the Bowery or as Patterson describes it, the “real skid row.” It’s made up of broken bottles and colorful drawings of drunk people.
Also in the show are several of Patterson’s signature hand-embroidered hats, drawings, painted mannequins, a leather jacket, and an electric guitar. Despite the variety of mediums, his body of work is highly recognizable. After giving me a tour of the show, hs showed me some of his best shots.
Clayton’s memory is inhuman. He scrolled through several of his seemingly endless portraits of the Lower East Side and was able to describe each with surprising detail. “You know that tavern at 80 Saint Marks, the theater, it’s called Barnacle Bill Tavern? This is Barnacle Bill!” he said as he pointed to a photo of a man sporting a huge grin. With each image, Patterson was able to recall a particular anecdote about it. Although his assemblage of NYC is wildly impressive, Patterson is pretty humble about it.
“Anybody can do what I do what I did, you just have to do it,” said Patterson. “If you’re a kid in the neighborhood and you just start photographing neighborhood people, if you do it long enough and stay at it, you too can have an amazing collection. You can do what I did, that’s important.”
CLAYTON PATTERSON: “OUTSIDE IN” ART EXHIBITION AT HOWL! NYC
Clayton Patterson is an East Village cultural icon – photographer, documentarian, artist and gallery owner, editor and publisher, organizer, promoter, provocateur and now Lower East Side historian. Since his move from Canada in 1979 Patterson began to photograph and document the Lower East Side in photographs, video and audiotape, and collected ephemera (zines, pamphlets, postcards, posters etc). “I was capturing the last of the wild, free, outlaw, utopian, visionary spirit of the Lower East Side.” Patterson stated to the New York Times in 2009, some thirty years later after he moved to the LES from Canada. “He did more than record … He has participated in and affected Lower East Side culture … Any one piece of that is best understood in the context of all the others” (Howl! Arts). Patterson’s Outside In exhibition, surveys of his work, focusing on the art, life, and times of the Lower East Side run through August 14, 2015 at Howl!.
Dressed in his signature Goth/punk regalia and sporting gold teeth and a long, gnarly beard, Clayton Patterson has the beaming mien of a gangster wizard — or a super hero of the urban spectacle.
Best known as a contrarian/documentarian for his important Tompkins Square Riot footage, Clayton Patterson is much more than a filmmaker and legendary freedom fighter. As you may know, he is also a designer, historian, publisher, archivist, prolific photographer — and, it turns out, a startlingly original artist. He and his long time companion, fellow collaborator and fine artist Elsa Rensaa, are the subjects of a blowout show at Howl Happening.
Patterson’s photographic documentation (he’s reportedly taken over 100,000 photos) is well known. This show included a sampling of those iconic portraits of exuberant adolescents, tattooed gang members, masked drug dealers and other denizens of the LES.
Patterson’s art speaks to the street. It’s as if he’s stitched parts of downtown New York into quilts. And he and Elsa have literally stitched designs (including his trademark skull) onto clothing and caps, recalling a motorcycle club aesthetic or military souvenir jackets.
Also in this show were a dozen or so impressive sculptures. Recognizing the entropic pressures on society, Patterson redirects the energy he encounters. First, he gathers shards of culture from the streets and then he creates new contexts for his found materials. Old steamer trunks, boxes, balusters and drawers become stages for operatic tableaux. Toy soldiers glow under a black light. Knives provide rhythms to chaotic juxtapositions.
These assemblage pieces combine Joseph Cornell’ fairy tale charm with the anti-sentimentality of Robert Rauschenberg’s “gluts” that “simply wanted to present people with their ruins.”
If Patterson incorporates the ruins, he also revitalizes them, resurrecting detritus and giving it new life. More recent affinities would include the Wunderkammer aspect of Joe Coleman’s freak art/museum collection and the Fusion Art of Shalom.
In one of Patterson’s pieces, a manikin recalls a boardwalk fortune- telling machine. A gypsy spirit pervades. Like magic portals in an arcade, these works suspend belief. They will draw you in to their mysterious overtures. One of them would look terrific in a museum. I could definitely see one holding up next to a sculpture by Louise Nevelson or Marisol.
IN THE UNDERWORLD, THE UNDERDOG IS ON TOP
by Jeffrey Cyphers Wright Published in: ON VERGE, New York, July 22, 2015
Clayton Patterson is in the “in crowd” of outsiders. He’s an out-sized outlaw, who runs an Outlaw Art Museum. He’s best known for his historical documentary photography and film. But he’s a man of many, many talents — he’s also a publisher. He’s an entrepreneur. He manages a clothing and fashion site, selling his trademark-embroidered caps with his long-time companion and collaborator, Elsa Rensaa. He’s a columnist. He’s a collector and an archivist of his beloved LES neighborhood. And he’s an artist!
Installation shot featuring Clayton Patterson’s Blue Boy and Pinky In The House (1976), mixed media.
Patterson’s photographic documentation (he’s reportedly taken over 100,000 photos) is well-known and I had expected this show to be composed of those photos: portraits of exuberant adolescents, tattooed gang members, masked drug dealers and other denizens of the LES.
And while there were samples of those photos and examples of the couple’s embroidery projects, the work in this show primarily featured Patterson’s and Rensaa’s other artwork. Rensaa is a fine artist and her mannerist paintings echoed Renaissance subjects and treatments. Her works included an “Egyptian Princess” and a portrayal of “Dick and Dante.”
Patterson’s work, in contrast, incorporated found objects in assemblages and “combines” that exuded a carnival atmosphere. The dozen or so sculptural pieces referenced boardwalk psychics, Joseph Cornell boxes and Rube Goldberg constructs. Tables, drawers, boxes and old steamer trunks found new life as repositories for bullets, knives, plastic toys and other odds and ends from the street.
Patterson recombines these elements, arranging them in surreal tableaux. The resulting pieces can recall religious relics in vitrines or tawdry arcade amusements. He’s created a Wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosities. Patterson shares a special affinity in this regard with contemporary artists Shalom Neuman of the Fusion Gallery and Joe Coleman.
The found objects that are incorporated possess an anthropological aspect. They suggest former lives that animate the pieces. Obsessive mark making, often associated with outsider art, covers most of the edges and some of the inside stuff. Bright daubs and slashes add to a diffusive quality, unifying the work and projecting a mystic aura. A couple of black lights completes the effect of being in an other world, an other space.
There is a democratic impulse in Patterson’s art. He is able to create a spectacle that is personal yet communal — and very authentic. His method of re-objectification rejects mainstream consumer culture while championing an alternative existence. His artworks imply morality within a potent aesthetic context.
‘OUTSIDE IN': CLAYTON PATTERSON AT THE HOWL GALLERY
Now that Ai Weiwei has his passport back, will he make it to New York in time to catch Clayton Patterson’s art exhibition, “Outside In”? Ai says he’s heading to Berlin, and he’s planning shows of his own in London. Since ‘Outside In” at the Howl Gallery runs only through mid-August, chances are he won’t be able to make it.
But it’s worth noting that Ai Weiwei’s admiration for Patterson is reflected in the catalogue for the show. “I consider Clayton a friend and I really like his style,” he writes. “His style is like no-style. I should say it is anti-style.”
Or you might say “biker style.”
Ai Weiwei first met Patterson back in 1988 and landed his first photo in The New York Times with an iconic shot of him, palms up, and the words
“Dump” “Koch” written on them in bold capital letters. The image of the defiant rebel on his way into court after one of his many arrests is more dramatic than all the dime-a-dozen publicity shots of Salvador Dali and his flower-tipped mustache.
I’ve written before that Patterson is rightly dubbed a “docucontrarian” for his work as a videographer, and also that “he has lived a multidimensional life of exemplary defiance and commitment. His record of arrests for antagonizing authority is by itself enough to put him in a category far above extraordinary.” This of course is what appeals to Ai, whose own widely noted run-ins with the Chinese authorities, are central to his art. He writes that Patterson’s “work is concerned with the truth, with facts. He has relentessly devoted himself to a kind of culture that examines authority. He has devoted himself to recording what is really going on, to giving his true account.”
Patterson is also better versed in the history of Manhattan’s Lower East Side than just about anyone. He has edited several massive volumes on the subject, including three about its Jewish history, which are also on display. Cultural preservation seems to be part of his DNA.
And so is embroidered art. The show includes examples of Patterson’s hat and robe designs created with Elsa Rensaa, as well as his large embroidered designs framed in glass.
CLAYTON PATTERSON FIGHTS ‘HOMOGENIZATION, DESTRUCTION
OF ANYTHING INDEPENDENT AND OUTSIDE’
Last year, Clayton Patterson announced that he and Elsa Rensaa, his partner and collaborator of more than 40 years, were moving from the Lower East Side to a small spa town in Austria. Lucky for anyone who admires his unflagging commitment to keeping it real and his tirades against the processes of gentrification and corporatization (see: his damning of Taylor Swift as the city’s cultural ambassador), the 66-year-old outsider artist, photographer, tattoo artist, dissident, and haberdasher who is known to many as the neighborhood’s “last bohemian” is not just still residing there, he also has a new solo exhibition. If you haven’t had a chance to see “Outside In” at Howl! Happening, tonight is the night to do so: the gallery will be screening Captured, the must-see documentary about Clayton’s obsessive documentation of the city as it once was.
Though the Pyramid Club — where Clayton filmed drag queens and hardcore shows — still stands, the East Village shown in Captured is almost unrecognizable from that of today. “There’s this homogenization, this destruction of anything that’s independent and outside,” Clayton told me during a recent visit to his home at 161 Essex, where he’s still holding court (something we figured he’d be doing). “What about the common man? Everything’s being taken away from the people. It’s not just the artists, it’s everybody.”
That theme surfaces in the materials used in some of Clayton’s sculptures, including syringes, drug baggies, a juror’s card, and even a fluid bag tossed on the ground after an EMT saved a stabbing victim in the park. “You’ll see at the art show all those plastic pieces in there, they came from Canal Street, which used to just be an unlimited number of small businesses selling every kind of knick-knack you can imagine, almost anything you can think of,” Clayton said. “That stimulated creativity, an environment that stimulates you is important for an artist.”
Though the timing is right for a late-career artist, Outside In isn’t exactly a retrospective. Yeah, some of Clayton’s most recognizable work is here– the photos, the embroidered “Clayton caps” that were worn by the likes of Gus Van Sant and Matt Dillon — but actually the show’s major focus is on sculpture and pieces of current and continuing work. The latter group includes Clayton’s fashion collaborations, like the clothing line he helped design for Siki Im’s 2015 fall/winter collection. “One of my goals with this show is trying to find my way into the fashion world and to establish our place in baseball cap history, in fashion history,” Clayton said.
It was a mega-hot July day when I visited Clayton. He sat in a broke-ass arm chair as if it were a throne, staring out through the windows, beyond the steel gate, out onto the street, scanning passerby like a hawk. Clayton was nice enough to point the weak-willed fan at me. I kept inspecting his face, impressed he didn’t appear to be breaking a sweat. He appeared totally comfortable in that position. And it seems that, essentially, this is exactly what Clayton’s been doing here since he came to Manhattan in 1979.
“New York City’s very transient, it’s like an ant hill that kicks itself over,” he explained. “New York is not really into New York City history and with this whole gentrification thing that’s happened, it affects everything. When you change the whole philosophy of the city, like, let’s say Bloomberg did, and make it more corporate, that means nothing counts except for the corporate point of view.”
During our conversation, Clayton didn’t disappoint even a little. He lived up to his chatterbox repute and showed off his predilection for hyperbole. But what can sometimes sound like borderline conspiracy theory is actually based in fact, and above all Clayton’s intense love for his neighborhood and the (regular) people that live here.
Clayton said he’s “trying to find an aesthetic for the common man, if you like, because it’s really about the people. That’s what we’re losing, the connection to the people. We’re losing the connection to possibilities.”
“We have this implosion of culture in New York City and we’ve moved away from a system where art had merit, it had soul, it was about humanity. We needed artists because artists kept us human. Artists were like prophets in a way. We relied on them for an aesthetic, an intuitiveness about the world,” Clayton said. “Well that’s all gone now. Now it’s only art and money. Art equals product. So what am I gonna do with it? Most of my stuff— look at my front door pictures as an example— those pictures don’t mean shit to most people because they’re inner-city people.”
I wondered if Clayton felt that, even if the Lower East Side has changed, “the scene” (as he called it), or the especially creative vibes that were buzzing when he arrived at the end of the ’70s, had remained alive but just moved outward, farther away from the center. Bushwick, maybe?
“You and I both know in our hearts of hearts that it’s not fucking Bushwick,” he barked. “I’m not saying the artists are bad, not saying they’re stupid, I’m just saying it’s not Bushwick. Just as it’s not here.”
Almost everything Clayton stands for derives from the premise that the status quo should never be accepted, that revolution is (literally, by definition) unending. “All those group-think things for the most part are bullshit,” he said. But sometimes Clayton’s positions can be weirdly paradoxical. If you think about it, actually some of what he advocates for is conservative, conservation, and constructing policies with an eye towards the past. But of course, all of Clayton’s positions reflect a radical rejection of the mainstream.
“I was 100 percent against gay marriage,” he said at one point, letting the statement drop while I laughed nervously as if to say: What the hell are you talking about? “You wanna know why? Because it’s gonna take a group of people who always had an outlaw quality to who they were, and on a certain level it gave them power. Now the group is gonna become homogenized, gay guys are going to become Republicans and they’re not going to give a shit about homeless gay guys and these guys cruising on the piers or whatever, now you have this social hierarchy that’s as normal as corporate America.”
Clayton smiled. He loves doing this, defying your expectations about him, while at the same forcing you to reckon with your own.
But here we were, getting wrapped up in politics and talk of gentrification, and I’d come to Clayton’s building, aka the Clayton Gallery and Outlaw Art Museum, to talk about this exhibition. But first things first, what ever happened to Clayton and Elsa moving to Europe?
“There’s an end game attached to the whole thing, and you have to deal with it because the end game actually happens and you have to be clear about what it is you want to do with what it is that you have,” Clayton said, referring to the uncertain future of his archive. “There’s a whole bunch of things in the background other than just, where am I gonna leave all my shit when I die?”
While moving his archive and all of his work to Austria would have been more difficult than he’d anticipated, he’s still in a pickle when it comes to the future of this building and, more importantly, his large body of work. “Something has to be done, all these places are just disappearing,” Clayton explained. “Who am I to think that I could survive?”
Specifically, he cites the improbability that any corporate powers— which are ruling the art world with their “facade of puritanism and ethics and morality and all this other crap”— would be interested in keeping his stuff around. (Though to be fair, Clayton did tell me that earlier this year he was flown via private jet to the Victoria Indie Film Festival in Texas, so actually it seems like some people with a fair amount of money are interested in his work.) “Most of my stuff they would think of as anti-social,” he mused. “I’ve been a thorn in the side of society.”
That last bit may sound a little exaggerated, but considering what Clayton has been through to defend his dissident work, it’s actually an understatement. He still screens his footage of the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riots, which led to a jail stint and a hunger strike after he refused to turn them over to authorities. “It’s up to me to keep that history alive in whatever way I can,” he said. “I think it changed the history of America. The big change was the police.”
Clayton’s message about systemic crises within police ranks across the country resonates now more than ever (see: the Black Lives Matter movement). “Beatings are a misappropriation of power, which is a sign of other things going on, like corruption” he explained. Video taping police activity has become commonplace, which makes it easy to forget Clayton (with the help of Elsa, who fed Clayton camera batteries and concealed his tapes) actually pioneered the medium.
“I don’t think people get it, one of the reasons why I say it’s a ‘police riot.’ There’s one shot that’s about a minute long and it defines the whole thing,” he said. “You can say, ‘Ah, those are rogue cops,’ but there’s the white shirt waving his hand to stop and the blue shirts just going by. That means there’s no chain of command, there’s no respect for authority.”
I wondered if Clayton saw any hope for change in Mayor de Blasio. He’s no Bloomberg after all. But Clayton’s response was the equivalent of a shrug. He’s not impressed with de Blasio, to say the least.
“He was one of the supporters of the Barclays Center, which took a lot of people out of their homes, they used eminent domain,” he pointed out. “He and his wife, she wears jeans to a fireman’s funeral [well, not exactly], what’s that all about? So now they’re the far-out liberals who break all the rules? What about breaking all the other rules? Certain mayors, if cops turned their backs at a fuckin’ funeral, they’d go, ‘Unless you guys turn around, you’re fired.’ There are leaders like that. He’s not one of them.”
To Clayton, then, the same forces responsible for transforming/destroying the Lower East Side as he knew it are still at work. “It’s a matter of survival as an independent artist and how do you do it, and on a certain level, that’s what the art show is about.”
At that show, Clayton’s sculptures are the most eye-popping of anything on display. There are several of them, and they’re imposing, almost playfully menacing figures. They look like pieces of furniture and old fashioned arcade games that a voodoo priestess cast a spell on, momentarily turning them into tornados that picked up all sorts of dirt and grime and garbage, splattering it with paint and feathers and glitter. I half-expected the sculptures to jiggle across the room or break into a epileptic fit. But on closer inspection, the bits and pieces of it all tell more of a story than I thought they might at first glance.
“Where was he keeping these?” I asked Howl’s lead curator, Ted Riederer, in awe of the sculptures’ number and immensity. “In his apartment,” Riederer said matter-of-factly.
Many of the sculptures incorporate mannequin appendages, spray-painted toy guns, bits of beat up fabric, and tiny plastic cowboys-and-Indians-type toys. That final detail sparked the curator’s thinking about Clayton’s work. “Clayton grew up in Calgary and his parents were frontiersmen basically,” Riederer explained. “I see this parallel between him settling in the Wild West of the Lower East Side.”
One top-heavy sculpture in the center of the room, “Black Beauty,” is covered in old nails, screws, and little pieces of junk, stuff Clayton gathered off the Bowery. “These are literally made up of pieces of the Lower East Side,” Riederer explained. Outside In demonstrates that Clayton-as-artist encompasses pretty much everything he does. An extensive legal document is spread out inside a glass display case next to what might appear to be a totally unrelated book of collages. The documents refer to a guy named Man of Jerusalem. Clayton described his friend as “a Hasid guy who had to go to the federal building.” According to the document, the man was arrested for throwing “tantrums in court.” Clayton, as a “friend of the court,” submitted this book of collages on behalf of Man of Jerusalem’s defense.
“The written part is about what I thought was wrong with his arrest, from a layman’s point of view, but it was all written in proper legal form, and there are photographs, because I can put in whatever the fuck I want,” Clayton explained. The accompanying legal document dubs Clayton’s submission something that “can only be described as a rather bizarre cover.” The submission was deemed “very much a concern” by the prosecutor assigned to the case.
“They said it was a threat against the US government, they turned it into a whole big deal,” Clayton laughed. “They went out and arrested my friend at 4 a.m. with a bunch of Federal Marshals and they said I couldn’t hand in any more papers. So of course I handed in another one saying that they were wrong. It was really just about questioning their authority, which they really don’t like.”
Pieces like this might seem like lesser works, but they tell stories that really connect the dots for Clayton’s body of work and his artistic mission. Everything he does as an activist and an artist are embodied in this story: defense of the little guy, challenging authority, and of course, rebelling in a way that’s straight up hilarious and creative and just weird.
But lately, as Clayton told us, the enemy has gotten blurrier and the resources that were once available to artists are no more. While places like Howl are doing great things to keep this particular kind of art alive on the Lower East Side, the bigger changes seem to be irreversible. “Because everyone seems to be leaving, our mission is to keep artists like Clayton on view in the neighborhood as much as we can and to keep supporting artists in the neighborhood,” Riederer explained. (Howl! Happening hosted Lydia Lunch’s exhibition was held earlier this summer.)
And while it might be tedious sometimes to listen to Clayton’s tireless rebellion or maybe you feel a little I’ve-heard-this-all-before about his rants against the powers that be, and his refusal to settle for anything less than radical reform, it’s hard not to feel a little let down when Clayton starts to sound tired of it all. “When you go into a scene, you know you’re in a scene. There’s something about the vibe, pooooofffff…” he extended his hands outward, miming a slow-motion explosion. “We know that muses leave and that it is possible for a city to die. And the muse is not here. It’s not here.” Lots of people might argue with this. But one thing’s for sure, Clayton’s still here.
To this day, a debate rages in the tabloids and blogosphere as to the merits of the period in New York City known as the “pre-Giuliani era” or “old New York.” From the mid-1970s to the late ’80s, New York could be a frequently violent and/or gratuitously disgusting place, but it was also a city with heart. You had to watch where you were walking, but the living was cheap and the music and art scenes were plentiful, and those who braved its fringes then have stories to tell today.
Any discussion as to whether times were better now or then is largely rhetorical, since there is little left of that classically debauched New York City that Martin Scorsese used to make movies about. The stores, restaurants, neighborhoods and people who made that era what it was have been substantially displaced or erased via zoning laws, rent hikes, quality-of-life policing and bulldozers.
So I am grateful that, during those decades, we had a guy like Clayton Patterson around to document the good, bad and ugly of this city when it still abounded with dark corners. He is our Weegee, our Jacob Riis. Coiffed in his trademark embroidered skullcap and looking through the viewfinder of his ever-present camcorder, Clayton was a conspicuous presence wherever there was a ruckus—protests, police actions, punk gigs, drag shows and the like. At the time, I chalked him up as yet another freak in a city full of them. It wasn’t until some years later that I came to appreciate both his art and the scale and the depth of his chronicling.
The documentary Captured, directed by Dan Levin, tells Patterson’s story. A native of Canada, Clayton studied at the Alberta College of Art and Design, as well as the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, before moving to New York in 1979. He made headlines after he videotaped the wanton police violence at the Tompkins Square Park riots in the summer of 1988. Decrying the encroachment of yuppie hordes on their turf, a small army of squatters, anarchists and street people made a stand when the NYPD came to enforce a curfew and tear down the tent city that had slowly taken over the park in the preceding years. It was a prophetic event, an ominous taste of things to come, as many of us who regularly spent time in what was then known as Alphabet City had never even heard of gentrification, much less imagined that there would come a day when parents would feel safe letting their children play in such a rat-plagued, piss-soaked, needle-strewn stretch of dirt, asphalt and incongruously beautiful trees.
After the police riot, the forces of “justice” came for Clayton’s tapes, knowing full well the career-ruining misconduct that he’d caught on them. Clayton resisted, was thrown in jail a few times, but eventually managed to present them as evidence of an unhinged and abusive police force. The anarchists had proved their point—but ultimately the war against gentrification was lost, and today there are million-dollar condos being built along Avenue D.
I finally got the chance to speak with Clayton and his longtime partner/collaborator, Elsa Rensaa, at their new exhibit, “Outside In,” at the Howl Gallery at 6 East First Street. With his gold teeth and long gray beard, Clayton is still a commanding presence. His artwork is similarly attention-grabbing, ranging from photographic portraits of neighborhood denizens to meticulously embroidered fabrics; he also creates large dioramas spattered with color and populated by mannequins, dime-store figurines, toy guns and ammunition shells. In contrast, Elsa’s paintings are elegant, almost classical portraits of robed figures of mysterious origin.
My favorite of the bunch was a diorama featuring arms reaching up from a Hades-like underworld toward a sea of faces. Above the faces is a cutout illustration of children playing harmonicas around a box with the word “work” adorned on its side. And surrounding them, in turn, is an inscription: “I would like to thank God and all of you out there for allowing me to live this moment.—Miss Universe.” The top of the cabinet that contains this fantasia is crowned with steak knives.
“I lived on the Bowery at the time,” Clayton said when I asked about the piece. “It’s a memory of it all—the stabbings, the restaurant-supply companies…. There was innocence and aggression. It’s a dichotomy: on the one hand the American Dream, Miss Universe representing all that is good and great; and then on the other the American bottom end, the Bowery, Skid Row.”
Noting that the stated intent of the show is to depict “the wild, free, outlaw, utopian, visionary spirit of the Lower East Side,” I asked Clayton for his definition of the word “outlaw.”
“‘Outlaw’ either skates or crosses over to the unfavorable side of the law—graffiti, street art, art that has court cases attached to doing it,” he replied. “I’ve had many court cases come out of different situations documenting the streets. Tattooing in NYC before it was legal was an outlaw art. It could also be statements that some would consider antisocial or as challenging the system. Protests can be a form of outlaw culture. Art that’s connected to the pot culture could fit into that category.”
In their many years of videotaping daily life on the LES (the shorthand term for the Lower Side East, if you’re not from around these parts), Clayton and Elsa documented numerous drug busts. So how did they learn about them?
“It was easy,” Clayton shrugged. “Usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the narcs would park on my block—around 3:30 or 4 o’clock—and then they would all of a sudden rush off. Elsa and I would chase after them on foot. Drug spots were everywhere, so we didn’t have far to run. We knew what to look for, and we followed what we saw. Drugs on the street were much more open than people realize. It was a 24/7, in-your-face business.”
The gallery housing the exhibit stands a few doors down from the Bowery—the original Skid Row, now the most gentrified street in all of New York. I asked Clayton if he saw any irony there.
“No! What is, is what is,” he replied. “I made my contribution to fighting gentrification: I lived on the Bowery in the early ’80s, when it was one of the worst crack streets on the LES. I see my work as the connection—the flavor, the essence, the spirit. Some of my work in the show has actual pieces from the Bowery from that period of time. And it seems fitting that my show is in exactly this spot—near where McGurk’s Suicide Hall and CBGB’s used to be.”
Considering that the majority of New Yorkers in the 1980s found the Lower East Side and its activities mostly repugnant, I was curious as to why Clayton had such a different reaction.
“I’m not sure,” he mused. “All I know is that, when I found the LES, it was like I’d found home.”