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.