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History of the Clayton Gallery at 161 Essex Street, New York
Up from the Urban Trenches, Artists and Art Spaces on the Lower East Side, NYC, 1986-2005, catalog, 2005, Fusion Arts Museum (ed.), ISBN 0-9760601-1-6
The Clayton art gallery first opened in 1986 at 161 Essex Street, with a show of photographs and embroidered custom made baseball caps. We (I and Elsa Rensaa, my partner of 33 years) were going independent and we were going to continue to make art and survive.
We considered the caps to be art. My reasoning was this: I am an artist and anything I do is art. I do not see the difference between imagination, good conversation, concepts, dreams, painting, video, photography, connecting people with ideas and concepts, developing those ideas and concepts, creating books or making caps. Whatever an artist creates is still art and artists must be conscious of what they are doing. Being in a creative environment is important and the LES was a crucible of hot creativity.
The cap had the possibility of having six different unique drawings on it, images that I designed. Elsa made the entire cap from pieces of fabric that she cut out, individually embroidered and then assembled. Elsa is well versed in crafts and in expediting the manufacture of a product. The cap era was great. When we started, baseball caps only had logos on the front and sometimes some sort of embroidered leaf design glued to the peak. Elsa and I forever changed the appearance of the American baseball cap.
Our cap was purchased by numerous celebrities, famous artists such as Jim Dine, David Hockney, and Mick Jagger, Bert Hemphill (the original curator for the modern Folk Art Museum), Matt Dillon, Rob Reiner, and Gus Van Sant to name a few. Richard Merkin of GQ magazine wrote that our cap was one of the two best baseball caps made in America. Our caps were also featured in fashion magazines such as Elle, Paper, the cover of Face magazine and in other gossipy fact sheets. Whoever thought that Clayton would be involved in fashion? - yet we -were. We even did the odd runway fashion show.
I had been a part of the SoHo art scene in the early '80s, and was part of a large prestigious gallery on Broome and West Broadway. My work sold to good collections: the Brooklyn Museum, Richard Brown Baker, Sydney Lewis, and I had shows on 57th St. and at Castelli Graphics. I hated it. I could see the glass ceiling. I left teaching for the same reason. You can see your future by those around you.
I lived in the same building as Keith Haring -325 Broome Street. He took over my free basement studio and made it his rental. I was the property manager for 325 Broome Street and of four other buildings on the Bowery as well. I admired Keith. He "made it" entirely on his own and was the captain of the ship. He was a leader. But Keith's scene was not my scene. His scene was one of hype, homosexuality, trendy clubs (like Studio 54, and Paradise Garage), drugs, multiple sex partners, lots of money (which he made on his own) and famous friends. I was a fish out of water.
It was around this same time that art galleries, pushed by style maker advertising firms like Saatchi and Saatchi, became involved in the hyped-up corporate mentality.This mentality saw art as a quick investment and as a commodity. A common thought during that era was that a large, expensive, strong, noisy painting in the middle of one's luxury loft would help to create and perpetuate the image of financial and social success. This art scene was connected to all of the mainstream press, to Wall Street and beyond.
Art began to sell for tens of thousands of dollars and new young artists like Julian Schnabel began to sell for more money than an old master such as Rembrandt did. The new economy unsettled the whole art market when middle market artists who sold their work for a few of thousand dollars were hijacked.
A new mythology emerged about artists: that they liked living large, smoking good Cuban cigars, were connoisseurs of fine cuisine, expensive sneakers, designer outfits and gold chains and that they used only the most expensive, high end drugs like pot and coke.You were judged by the restaurants you frequented.
By the early '80s SoHo was in the process of being identified as "the"ares, and real estate in that area was becoming increasingly more expensive. During this time Elsa and I witnessed the first major wave of gentrification roll across Canal Street, just east of Lafayette Street.This initial tidal wave was created by the Chinese people who were leaving Hong Kong prior to the takeover by China. They began buying all kinds of buildings in Little Italy, on the Bowery, in the East Village and on the Lower East Side.They bought every building on the north side of Hester Street just off the Bowery.The very large studio living space that Elsa and I had on the Bowery at that time was not rent-controlled. Our previous apartment on Broome Street we were legally subletting and that was about to end. We could see the axe falling. We knew we needed something to act as a safety net, and so we spent a year walking around at night looking in the area we liked and thought we could afford. Through a real estate broker named Mrs. Miller we found a place. We went to 42 banks trying to get a mortgage. We even went to a loan shark, but we nnally got a loan after Elsa approached the President of Citibank via his secretary who took down the information and passed it on to him. So in 1983 we purchased a two-story building on Essex Street. We rented the first floor to pay the mortgage and used the small store front window display area that was separate from the rest of the first floor as our office art gallery.
In 1983 we entered into the black hole. Our location, the area below Houston and Delancey, was definitely the Wild West, with its 24 hour drug traffic and all the peripheral life styles that go hand in hand with the hard core drug street scene. We have lots of documentation.
I decided to open a gallery that would allow me to show the work of artists who I found interesting, professional and were outside the system. Peoplke who worked from an inner voice and a necessity, not for market values. I did hope that it might serve as a springboard for artists to be able to make the jump to a commercial gallery with more economically established and hence had more "merit." I also took pictures of community people, mostly Hispanic youths, and in 1985 I started putting thirty six of these pictures in the window, changing them roughly every two weeks. It was the most viewed window photo exhibit in New York City. Twenty four hours a day kids said "Mira, mira!" and tapped on the glass. My window mural was known locally as The Hall of Fame. It was great. We also allowed our large metal front door that was the backdrop for the photos being exhibited to be used as The Wall of Fame. The door became a graffiti tag spot where all kinds of local tags found a place. It was because of those 36 photographs in the window I decided that opening a gallery and showing what / wanted to show was a good idea. While not a big money maker, it was a way to try to influence the world, how people think and what they see. In our small store front gallery we sold baseball caps and had art shows.
I soon learned that visitors to the area and the white people who lived there did not seem to have much curiosity regarding my window exhibit. Here was a great photo show that had a real and rather large audience. The whites, the artists, and the people who spent their lives involved in the aesthetics of art and culture never discovered the window while walking by, even after 18 years. They never wondered at the groups of kids standing there and tapping on the window. I was hardly ever asked about the photos being displayed. A writer or two mentioned them as did a few other "hip people" but they were on drugs and buying in the area.They just happened to see their dealers in a photo. Buying drugs was a waiting game, so to pass the time buyers 'who often parked in front of our place talked to us and I photographed them. I photographed quite a few drug dealers in the community because they were on the street or part of the posses. Eventually I went digital and lost the window spot. I need to hook up a computer.
Boris Lurie, an artists whose work I showed, and I have had an ongoing debate about the importance of a news item in the main media press as opposed to a review in an art magazine. Boris is convinced that articles written in art magazines are the only press that is important. I believe that the art magazines are worth very little because it is a fixed money game. The news is a wild card and is read by many more people - the City Section of the Sunday New York Times is read by a much wider audience than the Arts section is. Unless you are in the higher priced sales game the Arts section in the Times means very little. Being written about in the news section at least gives you a fighting chance of reaching an audience.
It has also been my intention to create art that can be practical in a functional way, similar to getting one's information disseminated in the news. The act of handing in court papers that use visuals combined with text to make an artistic and social statement is a way to make a multi-level point of view. Court can be a form of artistic protest. Civil court is one of the only times it is possible to publicly question authority. Court papers are a public archive and theoretically should be around forever. We have had a number of our videotapes used in a both civil and criminal court cases and some of my court paper art work briefs have caused major reactions. I have been involved in court cases for 16 years. I have had more tapes used in police misconduct, police leadership problems and police brutality cases than anyone in the history of the America. I have a lot of experience in using the courts as an artistic form.
Over the years Elsa and I created the Clayton archives. The archives include a collection of hundreds of thousands of photographs and hundreds of hours of video tape pertaining to Manhattan's Lower East Side. My LES photography began in 1979 and the videotapes began in 1986. It was at this time 'while documenting the Pyramid Club that I ran into Nelson Sullivan. Nelson, who I considered to be a video genius and pioneer changed the direction of my life for a number of years by making the idea of using video as an art tool a creative reality for me.
The archived material covers all aspects of street action: drug use, drug busts, police actions, fires, marches, protests, riots, art and artists, drag queens, poetry readings, community board meetings, social gatherings, Judaica and synagogues, Hari Rrishnas, tattoos, bands, performances, street fairs, doorways and so on. In essence the Clayton archives cover life. It is a collection of images relating to life on the Lower East Side and the story of a changing community. The collection has been reviewed in the New York Times and in numerous other publications such as university text books. Richard Kostelanetz's Dictionary of the avant garde gave an entry to the August 6 - 7th, 1988, three hour and 33 minute video of the Tompkins Square Park Police Riot.The collection has been described as one of the most unique and largest single documentaries of this particular time period.
The Clayton archives also includes a large collection of paper ephemera and art from the time period that runs parallel to that of the photos and videos. There are political posters from the '80s and '90s, those years of turmoil on the LES. Invitation cards for art shows, commercial club invitations, and individually created handbills.There are glycine envelopes with heroin brand stamps and a large collection of graffiti stickers. There are also newspaper and magazine stories connected to this material.The Outlaw Art Museum is the part of our building on Essex Street that exhibits the archives and shows the work of artists who have challenged the definition of art and the law.
The artists and art that the gallery has shown over the years is work that I find interesting, artists who are usually outsiders. They are not untrained, primitive or unintelligent but rather the people who define the outside border of our culture. These are artists who have something to say, who are well trained and well versed in their particular field of exploitation. I exhibit artists who are making art because it is in their blood, people like Steve Bonge, Charles Gatewood, Spider Webb, Baba Raul Canizares, Jerry Pagane, Baldo Diodato, Manwoman, Cochise, Peter Missing, Jim Power, Elsa Rensaa, Efroim Schneider,Tom deVita, Bill Heine,Anne Ardolino,Art Party Pravda, and many others too numerous to be mentioned here.
Baba Raul Canizares was a Santero, a priest-practitioner of Santeria and an artist. He had a life long interest in religious studies and magic and wrote several books related to Santeria including an autobiography. One exhibition that I had for Baba included the work of Genesis P-Porridge, who is also truly an original.
Spider Webb, who apprenticed to be a tattoo artist in Coney Island under Brooklyn Blackie, gained notoriety as a tattoo artist. He wrote "Pushing Ink" in 1979, and it is still one of the most radical books about tattooing in the 20th-century. He was also the first American artists who mixed tattooing with fine art and performance art. Spider graduated from the School of Visual and has a masters degree in fine art.
Steve Bonge is an important tattoo photographer who has been active in this field since the mid-70s. He was instrumental in producing the ITA tattoo magazine and is one of the two owners of the annual New York City tattoo convention. He is also president of the New York City Hell's Angels and photographed and produced all the Angels' catalogues. He has published two books of his photography, played a character in the HBO television series "Oz" and has been in movies.
Charles Gatewood, with an anthropological background, is also a photographer. He has been an explorer of the body modification and the nonconformist sex scene since the '60s and has published numerous books. Charles has had several one-man shows at the Clayton Gallery.
In the '60s Manwoman was possessed with visions and dreams of resurrecting the swastika as a symbol of good. The swastika had been positive for thousands of years prior to Adolf Hitler turning it into one of the most evil symbols of the 20th-century. Manwoman tattooed his whole body with different swastikas from all areas of the world that included the swastika of peace on his back. I support Manwoman in his cause and have shown his work.
Robert Lederman had a powerful exhibition showing his portraits of Rudy Guilliani at the Gallery. Robert has used the courts in a very productive way by challenging and winning lawsuits that define the law.
Q. Sakamaki, war photographer and humanitarian, has opened our eyes to numerous wars and violent conflicts from around the world. Q is on a mission to wake up the world to man's inhumanity to man. He is a documentary photographer with a cold and steady eye for reality.
Boris Lurie and NO!art. I gave the NO!art group their first New York art show in 30 years. John Strausbaugh, editor of The New York Press wrote a long biographical article about the NO!art movement and about Boris Lurie for the paper. NO!art, some of the first holocaust art, was considered too radical and was shelved in America. The Germans have given NO!art a lot of attention in the last several years, producing three books and numerous museum shows. Boris, one of the main strategists of NO!art, was a survivor of numerous work camps and concentration camps. He and his father were liberated from Magnaburg, which was a satellite work camp of Buchenwald, in 1945.
Jim Power the mosaic man is a Vietnam veteran who has given up everything to create a Mosaic Trail through the Lower East Side by beautifying city streets with mosaics. Jim has been a part of several art shows at the gallery.
Peter Missing is another Lower East Side artist who has petrified and alarmed community operations with his Missing Foundation Art, philosophy and his band Missing Foundation.
Jerry Pagane follows the tradition of the '30s and '40s American humanism art. Baby Jerry was abandoned on the steps of a church in 1948. After running away from several foster homes and two orphanages, he found a good loving family and never left again. His paintings and woodblocks made during the '80s and '90s express the crisis of homelessness, of fires, of junkies, and of life on the Lower East Side. Jerry is also a master at sign painter and one of the last gold leaf sign painters in NYC. Andrew Rossi, an accomplished documentary film maker, is currently shooting a film on the life and times of Jerry Pagane.
Cochise began making art after his association with the Clayton Gallery. An inspired artist, Cochise was president of the Satan Sinners Nomads on the Lower East Side. He is now serving a long sentence in prison. Some of his work was collected by Bert Hemphill of the Folk Art Museum.
The gallery also showed graffiti artists like Seen's one-man show and the work of LA2 who was Keith Haring's partner as well as artistic break-through partner during the early days. The Gallery attempted to get LA2 recognition and justice.
Baldo Diodato is an artist whose art, creativity, style, imagination and artistic skills have always impressed me. Baldo, an excellent chef and a sharp dresser, is culturally sophisticated and lives an elegant lifestyle. In the mid '80s Baldo shared my studio. We are almost total opposites, but have a deep respect for each other. Since he has moved back to Italy I have shown his work. Baldo did his best to try and make me fit into the art world.
Thom DeVita, has forged new pathways and directions in tattoo art, and much of his work overlaps into fine art. Tom is a true original.
I was always interested in tattoos and tattooing. I became president of the NYC Tattoo Society in 1986. We had numerous guest artists show their work, tattoo contests and celebrity events.The Tattoo Society met monthly until 1997 when tattooing became legal in New York City. Wes Wood of Unimax and I worked with Councilwoman Kathryn Freed to push this through tattoo legalization and to make it palatable to all the various tattoo artists in the city.
Since 1998 I have worked as an organizer in Steve Bonge's and Butch Garcia's annual NYC Tattoo Convention. Elsa does the art work for the convention cards. From 1995 to 2002 I negotiated American sideshow performers and tattoo artist to work at Jochen Auer's Wildstyle European shows.
Tattooing is an independent art world that has old and historic international connections. While craftsmanship is important, tattoo artists ultimately gain prestige and reknown through their creative artistry.
People care about tattooing in a deeply personal way. A tattoo artist makes a living from his art, whereas fine art has become a lost, dead,soulless empire filled with warring, egos who fight and kill for the same scraps.There is no dominant force or movement in art anymore. Art has been marginalized by art galleries and economic scams. These in turn have made the requirements for creating art, for calling one's self and artist so minimal that all standards are jhave been lost.This has in turn created superficial barriers between people and created a hostile and elitist environment. All sense of humanity, of seeking truth and beauty are lost in the overwhelming superficiality. Where is the spirit of art? We hope it can be resurrected and we hope to help accomplish that resurrection.
Aldo Tambellini an artist who was instrumental in the early 60's and 70's artists video projects ran an important independent film theater on the Lower East Side and was instrumental in protesting the Museum of Modern Art's exclusion of New York artists. The gallery combined a video showing at the Pioneer Theater with Aldo's one man show at the gallery. Theshow was done to support and celebrate Phil Hartman's HOWL Festival.The gallery also arranged, at the HOWL Film Festivals screenings, a video showing of the extremely significant video work of Nelson Sullivan, Jeffrey Lerer's Gilbert Hotel animation, and my Bad Brains 10:18 show (1987).
The gallery is working on putting together a series of history books about the LES. The first book, Captured is a film/video history of the Lower East Side and is expected to be published by May 2005. The book is being published by Seven Stories Press. The next book, which is almost finished is about the politics of the LES, and mostly concentrates on those years of turbulence 1988-1998. We would like to follow that one with an art history book, a hard drugs book, and then we will see where we go from there. Fotofolio is in the process of publishing a book of mine called Lower East Side 1985-2000, but seem to be having what appears to be insurmountable problems getting the book designed.
Another mission of the gallery is to support and help build the reputation of Shalom's FusionArts Museum at 57 Stanton Street, help to support Angel Orensanz's artistic quests and art adventures throughout the world and to help promote Al Orensanz's dreams and his desire to bring attention to his incredibly important and historically significant building, "The Angel Orensanz Cultural Foundation" at 172 Norfolk Street.
The Museum of Modern Art is an antique slice of history which represents the time period of the end of the 19th to mid 20th century. There is no ultimate Temple of fine art. Art has been marginalized and now has only different niche markets. Our efforts are outside the mainstream. We are keeping a slice of culture vital and alive amongst a very small yet knowledgeable crowd.
Clayton Gallery always looks like we are closed but we are not. It is best to call for an appointment.