In the Underworld, the Underdog is on Top

by Jeffrey Cyphers Wright

Clayton Patterson and Elsa Rensaa | Outside In | Curated by Ted Riederer | Howl! Happening | June 19 – August 14, 2015

Clayton Patterson is in the “in crowd” of outsiders. He’s an out-sized outlaw, who runs an Outlaw Art Museum. He’s best known for his historical documentary photography and film. But he’s a man of many, many talents — he’s also a publisher. He’s an entrepreneur. He manages a clothing and fashion site, selling his trademark-embroidered caps with his long-time companion and collaborator, Elsa Rensaa. He’s a columnist. He’s a collector and an archivist of his beloved LES neighborhood. And he’s an artist!


Installation shot featuring Clayton Patterson’s Blue Boy and Pinky In The House (1976), mixed media.

Patterson’s photographic documentation (he’s reportedly taken over 100,000 photos) is well-known and I had expected this show to be composed of those photos: portraits of exuberant adolescents, tattooed gang members, masked drug dealers and other denizens of the LES.

And while there were samples of those photos and examples of the couple’s embroidery projects, the work in this show primarily featured Patterson’s and Rensaa’s other artwork. Rensaa is a fine artist and her mannerist paintings echoed Renaissance subjects and treatments. Her works included an “Egyptian Princess” and a portrayal of  “Dick and Dante.”

Patterson’s work, in contrast, incorporated found objects in assemblages and “combines” that exuded a carnival atmosphere. The dozen or so sculptural pieces referenced boardwalk psychics, Joseph Cornell boxes and Rube Goldberg constructs. Tables, drawers, boxes and old steamer trunks found new life as repositories for bullets, knives, plastic toys and other odds and ends from the street.

Patterson recombines these elements, arranging them in surreal tableaux. The resulting pieces can recall religious relics in vitrines or tawdry arcade amusements. He’s created a Wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosities. Patterson shares a special affinity in this regard with contemporary artists Shalom Neuman of the Fusion Gallery and Joe Coleman.

The found objects that are incorporated possess an anthropological aspect. They suggest former lives that animate the pieces. Obsessive mark making, often associated with outsider art, covers most of the edges and some of the inside stuff. Bright daubs and slashes add to a diffusive quality, unifying the work and projecting a mystic aura. A couple of black lights completes the effect of being in an other world, an other space.

There is a democratic impulse in Patterson’s art. He is able to create a spectacle that is personal yet communal — and very authentic. His method of re-objectification rejects mainstream consumer culture while championing an alternative existence. His artworks imply morality within a potent aesthetic context.

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