For anyone who lived through the exhilarating, anything-is-possible Downtown NYC of the 1980s, surely it remains a burning question: is it better that those ideas have gained wider acceptance? Or has that taken the thrill and danger out of it all?
The East Village’s Pyramid Club was one of those places (it remarkably remains open to this day) where society’s sacred cows were regularly sacrificed on the altar of radical progress – falling victim to a burning desire by some to challenge the stifling forces of regressiveness. To be sure, it was something of a sanctuary for those that may have found it difficult to fit in anywhere else – cultivating ideas that would have a sweeping effect on the way we perceive culture, gender…even humanity itself.
Honoring that, this Wednesday, October 18, the GROUPE boutique’s in-house gallery A Number of Names at 198 Bowery will open an exhibition of Clayton Patterson’s striking portraits of the Pyramid’s most memorable and glamorous drag characters.
Patterson was (and still is) one of the keenest documentarians of the East Village / Lower East Side neighborhood and its scene, camera always at the ready as its so many courageous and fabulous personalities carried on doing what they do, looking how they looked, and caring not a whit for those who didn’t approve. He’s had several books published, including Captured: A Film/Video History of the Lower East Side and Resistance: A Radical Political and Social History of the Lower East Side. A documentary about him, Captured, came out in 2008.
“We were introduced to Clayton almost 20 years ago,” recalls GROUPE’s James Jurney. “We offered our first store on Elizabeth Street to Tod Lippy, as the set of his short film Cookies – and Clayton was one of the actors. Naturally, he played a kind of Hell’s Angels biker. We’ve followed his incredible career and we’re honored to be able to exhibit these important portraits. These drag queens of the 80s were certainly brave pioneers in the long-fought battle for freedoms of gender and sexual identity.”
GROUPE, which was opened in NoLIta in November 2016 by Seize sur Vingt founders James and Gwendolyn Jurney, has become one one of downtown’s most exciting incubators of young fashion talent. In keeping with their creative/aesthetic ideology, they have also featured regular exhibitions of visual arts talents that have inspired them.
James explains, “As the mission of GROUPE is to support and incubate local NYC designers, it is very exciting that we’re able to likewise support and showcase the incredible talent of a legendary NYC artist; particularly at a time when the concept of ‘local’ is coming under fire from so many angles.”
BlackBook chatted with Patterson about the show, and the neighborhood he loves.
Everyone talks about the old East Village / LES versus the current – but how would you describe the difference in a couple of sentences?
A magical crucible that opened up so much opportunity for whoever wanted to work for their dream. The LES was like a free and open university with limitless options – and I learned so much. The community was dense with different kinds of cultural activities, for example: a wide variety of forms of filmmaking, narrative, non-narrative, abstract, avant-garde, documentary, New Wave, transgression, punk, and so on. It seemed like you had an endless choice of fashion, poetry, music, art, venues to play or be an audience member in. And then the cross-section of religions, the different ethnic groups…then throw in the politics, drag, and so on.
Was there an exciting sense of possibility then in breaking down sacred gender barriers?
I was not focused on gender issues, and I do not remember gender as the hot topic it is today. It was a different era. I had friends involved getting a sex change, but it was more a private personal issue, not a public campaign.
There’s so much of an effort to categorize every little gender difference now. Did you feel that your subjects were more concerned with personal expression than with gaining social acceptance?
I have shown the artwork of [Warhol superstar] Candy Darling, and will be having a Candy Darling wig and art show coming up; but the surface subject is not gender specific. Rather, it’s the creative importance of an individual that was one of the leading forces of illustrating that ‘to do’ is a powerful way to make change. Candy Darling was a game changer by example, not by a political platform.
What was the Pyramid’s role in all of it? Was it more of a sanctuary for “outsiders,” or a place to just let go and ignore all the prejudices and stereotypes for a few hours?
Calling it a sanctuary for “outsiders” is a good description.
Who were some of your favorite subjects?
The Pyramid was instrumental to my growth as an artist. Because of this, part of my ambition is to bring attention to the people who helped me and I saw as geniuses and critical to the scene…but who are so much overlooked. For example, Peter Kwaloff / Sun PK, he was an explosion of creativity and needs to be discovered in a much larger way; Nelson Sullivan introduced me to the video camera which changed my life – he was instrumental helping a number of well-known creative people’s careers. Ray Beez from the hardcore band War Zone introduced me to that scene – which was, for me, a very exciting time, and also another American cultural game changer. I held Tattoo Society of NY meetings at the Pyramid, and the TSNY was responsible for legalizing tattooing in NYC.
Any specific great stories you remember?
The creation of Wigstock.
Do these images still have the ability to provoke?
No idea how others respond to these images…no question they are important to me.
What makes GROUPE the right place to exhibit them?
In 1999, Tod Lippy, now publisher of the extraordinary Esopus magazine – which included a selection of these portraits in their current issue – had written and produced a short independent movie called Cookies. I was an actor in his movie, and a portion of it was shot in James Jurney’s Elizabeth Street [Seize sur Vingt] store. And now years later he has survived as an independent downtown business. I admire and support James and his team for their ability and skill at hanging in there, as I have now witnessed masses of small independent businesses start and fail, and watched as businesses that had been on the LES for decades be priced out. My new campaign is MAKE DOWNTOWN OURS AGAIN – look up Clayton Patterson NO!art.