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CLAYTON PATTERSON: PYRAMID PORTRAITS
An Interview by TOD LIPPY
■ What led you to the Pyramid Club during the mid-’80s?
Photographing Peter brought me into the dressing room, which is where nearly all of these portraits were shot. There was a hole in the wall in there that was about a foot deep. One day I cleaned it out and built a frame around it. I did a little embroidery thing with poodles. The people I photographed always wanted to see the prints, and I figured this would be a good forum to show them in. I would change it every week or so.
■ 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.
This all coincided with Kembra Pfahler, from The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, talking about “Availabilism,” which was essentially the practice of making something out of whatever you had access to. I come from Western Canada, and I will never forget as a kid going to one of my aunt’s houses to ride on “the train,” which was just a bunch of stools that were set up in her kitchen. You use your imagination to create something that you don’t—or can’t—have.
What used to happen a lot in New York was that if people were moving, or if they had a son who had died or something, they would take their clothes and clean them and wash them and put them out in the garbage can, and people would come along and take them. Plus, you had a very thriving second-hand store scene—like Cyndi Lauper in “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” which was all about dressing up from the next-to-new shops. The idea was to make these costumes as elaborate as possible and as creative as possible but as cheaply as possible. For instance, in one of the portraits of Cathleen, that little piece of jewelry she’s wearing? That’s a broken piece of a car window shield that’s been fractured into a thousand pieces, but it looks fabulous as a piece of jewelry. Or you’ll look more carefully at the scarves in other portraits and notice that their edges are pretty tattered, and your realize, “My god, these things were made for nothing.”
■ 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.
I don’t see any of my subjects as victims or as caricatures. In my universe they’re superstars, because I’m dealing with them on a level that’s about pure creativity. The sexual aspect doesn’t matter; how much money you have doesn’t matter—the moment is what matters. I always saw what they were doing as joyous and creative and imaginative. To be honest, I think of them as me in a way—there is this sense of identification I have with them. When you’re dealing with kids who deal drugs on the street you’re dealing with one form of outsider, or drag queens, another form of outsider—because of my background I have always been an outsider.
The other thing about this is that when one is trying to be a painter you have an ideal picture in your mind of what you want to create. But with these drag queens, there’s something more total about their art. You have a character, you have a look, you have a newly created image and story—there’s a wholeness to it. Once you have that whole character down, there’s like a truth attached to it: It’s a form of perfection.
Once you’re in New York City long enough you realize everything comes in waves, and eventually the wave hits the beach and once it does, there’s only that one line in the sand where the water was. And that’s what happened with the Pyramid Club. For a while, that Pyramid look was the look, and then out of that came people like RuPaul, who ended up becoming the commercial product: quaffed, designed, overly made-up. Everything was worked and worked and worked until you had the perfect product. But there is also a boring side to the perfect product, because now it’s strictly about business and repetition. You’re trading off the creativity for the money.
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ABOUT TOD LIPPY: He is the editor of ESOPUS magazine and president of the Esopus Foundation Ltd., which also runs the alternative exhibition and performance venue Esopus Space. Formerly he was the editor and co-founder of Scenario: The Magazine of Screenwriting Art, the publisher and co-editor of publicsfear magazine, and a senior editor at Print magazine. He is the author of the book Projections 11: New York Film-Makers on Film-Making (Faber & Faber, 2000), and his 1999 short film, Cookies, was featured in over 20 film festivals in the U.S. and abroad.