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.
The photos, which were taken by artist, documentarian, and social activist Clayton 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 entirely new personas, each one more outrageous and compelling than the last. Patterson identifies his subjects as “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.
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 email@example.com, or call Tod Lippy at 212-473-0919.
An Interview with CLAYTON PATTERSON by TOD LIPPY
Tod Lippy: What led you to the Pyramid Club during the mid-’80s?
Clayton Patterson: Basically, with all of my documentation, I’ve usually found a subject because of introductions. What led me to the Pyramid was that I was taking all of these photographs outside of my front door on Essex Street, and this guy named Peter Kwaloff (who is now called Sun PK) would come around the corner all of the time, and he was open and friendly and accessible. So I photographed him a few times and after a while he said, “You know, I do drag at the Pyramid on Sundays. You should photograph me getting ready sometime.” And I thought, “Wow, that sounds interesting.” So that pulled me into the Pyramid and the “Whispers” drag scene there on Sunday nights —it was all very natural.
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?
I went really steadily for at least a couple of years in the mid-80s. What happened was the police riots came along and turned me in an entirely different direction.
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.
Yeah, I’ve been involved with all kinds of outsider art forms—like tattoos, for instance. And the drag queens certainly fit into that. Their art is about painting—face painting—but more than that, it’s about creating a character. These people were heavily creative. Ultra-creative. They were sort of the “last of the fags,” which is interesting to me. I don’t know if it started with The Boys in the Band or whatever, but there was a point where gayness began to be questioned, and people starting taking the part of gay culture that was on the edges and moving it toward the middle. There was a loss of that really effeminate behavior—which was maybe exaggerated in the first place as a defense mechanism—but you lost the Taylor Meads and Quentin Crisps. It’s just something that I’ve noticed.
Can you describe the scene at the Pyramid Club in those years?
You just had this kind of spontaneous, unraveling creativity every weekend. The club was like a crystallization of the Lower East Side. Unlike SoHo, which was more of a careerist place for artists, the Lower East Side was an expressionist place, where it was more about just being an artist than being famous or rich. Also, in that period, it was one of the most racially integrated neighborhoods in the world: It had Chinese, Indians, Bangladeshis, Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, as well as lifestyle diversity—the Hell’s Angels, skinheads, drag queens, religious zealots. And at the Pyramid Club, security would be people from the hardcore scene, which is supposedly very anti-gay, but all of these stereotypes didn’t apply there. It was like a free zone. So it had that crazy mixture.
I can’t get over how incredibly inventive all of the different looks are in these portraits.
The amazing thing about the Pyramid Club was that up to that point, drag had been about referencing movie stars like Bette Davis or Judy Garland, but the queens at the Pyramid invented entirely fictitious characters. You had people like Alan Mace, who always did these kind of space-age, Kenny Scharf-ish kinds of characters, and Maze, who did more goth-punk stuff, and then you had the Hapi Phaces and the Tabboos and people like that who just spontaneously created characters—every week a new one. Especially Sun PK (née Peter Kwaloff), who lived about Bella’s Fabrics on Stanton Street. You could buy fabric there for as little as a dollar a yard. Or if you wanted something really exotic you could go to Diamond Fabrics, which was on 2nd Avenue and 12th Street. And then you had the shoe stores on 14th Street: where else could you find a man-sized 12 stilletto-heel shoe? And cheap wigs on 14th Street and Delancey Street. There were a bunch of these outlets.
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 think that’s due to a couple of things. I really used to love Diane Arbus’s artwork, and then I discovered that she had grown up in this wealthy Upper East Side environment, and I realized that her photographs, like those in Richard Avedon’s “American West” series, are essentially caricatures. The people in that Avedon series are looking at him like, “Why are you photographing me?” And that’s what I realized about Diane Arbus: She was looking at her subjects as freaks, as alienated people. She was looking at them as a way almost to redeem herself. You know what I’m saying?
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.
This interview was conducted in New York City on February 10, 2010
Copyright © 2010 Clayton Patterson and the Esopus Foundation Ltd.
THE PYRAMID CLUB
Review 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
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?
Peter Kwaloff, now called Sun PK, lived around the corner and I took his photo in front of my front door. He mentioned that he did drag performance at the Pyramid Club -I thought cool- sounds like an adventure, and that was it.
What made you want to photograph the drag queens who frequented the club?
It was an exciting creative adventure. It was photographing performance artists who continually invented characters and personalities. And it was fun.
What years did you document the club?
Drag Queens, 85-88, mostly.
What was the scene like there?
The scene was spontaneous, creative, inexpensive to participate in—friendly, welcoming, open, adventurous, fun—very neighborhood, very downtown, very LES, mixed racially—gay and straight.
Compare the style of that era to the state of New York style at present.
That was a scene that had continuity to it. It did not end when the evening was over. It connected to the community. It overlapped with so many other scenes—Hardcore, art, performance, poetry, dance music—in other words the community because it was possible to afford to live here—creative people were living creative lives and most of their life was taken up being an artist. Drag performers were also artists—so they did their other art during the other times.
What’s next for you?
Getting the Clayton archives in order, making art, getting onto the next adventure. Last one just finished was the NYC International Tattoo Convention, next is probably the fall Wildstyle tour, getting the LES Jewish People’s history book into print and finishing the NYC Tattoo history book. And on the look out for new adventures—getting LA II AKA Angel Ortiz his proper credit- getting No!art history straightened. out.