Downtown Scene Reclusive Artist Elsa Rensaa Spreads Her Wings | Straight Up

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The New York gallerist James Fuentes is presenting Elsa Rensaa’s paintings in a two-part exhibition — Out of the Wilderness and Into the Blue  —at 55 Delancey Street through April 20, with a reception on March 20. It marks Rensaa’s first solo exhibition in lower Manhattan, where she has lived and worked since 1979.

Title unknown (Dick & Dante),
ca. 1980s [Acrylic on canvas]
49.5″ x 19″ (framed)

“Spanning the 1970s through 1990s,” Fuentes writes, “Rensaa’s exquisite paintings are rendered with meticulous applications of thin acrylic washes, bringing forth lush, syncretic visual portals. These works draw from a vast and visionary range of references, including Ancient Nordic, Egyptian, and Eastern imagery, in addition to Renaissance, Art Nouveau, and Dada art movements, with a Lower East Side iconography that is distinctly recognizable as Rensaa’s own.”

Title unknown (Goddess and 240 Centre St.)
ca. 1980 [Acrylic on canvas]
47″ x 21″ (framed)

Clayton Patterson, the noted artist-videographer best known for his documentation of the Lower East Side, has been Rensaa’s partner for more than 50 years.  “Anything good that happened in my life happened because of her,” he writes. “As she said in Captured we are one.  Yes, there is a point where you become one.  This is her turn to step in front, spread her wings, to come out of the shadows.  She was always an extremely private person.  She will now be public with her own show.”

Born in Norway in 1944 and reared in Edmonton, Canada, Rensaa relocated to lower Manhattan in 1979, where she has remained a critical fixture of the downtown community.

“Although well recognized for her polymathic contributions, technical abilities, and cultural knowledge,” Fuentes notes, “her paintings were seldom shown when she made them. Due to her reclusive nature, the depth and brilliance of Rensaa’s work is only starting to surface and become understood today.  

“Her singular oeuvre of paintings brings together her precise vision and incisive artistic references. Early in her creative career, Rensaa was the art director for the largest printing company in Western Canada, after which she moved to New York, where she found work at Sienna Studios on Elizabeth Street. There, she became one of very few artisans in the city who could make color separations for prints by hand — known as a chromiste in the French tradition. She quickly became one of the leading experts in this field, executing prints by Picasso, Dalí, and others. Working by day at the print shop, she focused on her intricate paintings during her off hours—ensconced in her home studio on Essex Street. 

Clayton Patterson and Elsa Rensaa ca. 1987.
Elsa Rensaa in 2014.

“Carrying through her life as a painter,” Fuentes continues, “Rensaa remained deeply engaged in the process of experimenting with restricted palettes and carefully layered color to produce limitless tones and hues. By her hand, thin washes of yellow and red acrylics reveal shades of orange, amber, scarlet, and ochre imbued with the translucent and luminescent effect of oil paint. Although introverted, Rensaa’s deep connection to the world in which she lives radiates in her artwork. In addition to painting, she played an important role in New York’s underground culture, influencing street fashion with the embroidered baseball caps she created with her life partner Clayton Patterson, supporting and advocating for the once-illegal tattoo community, and enmeshing herself with the leading graffiti writers of the day.

“Rensaa grew up in an intellectual and creative family,” Fuentes writes. “Her parents moved from Norway to Canada in the 1920s, and would return to there the following decade, during the Depression. Rensaa’s mother died when Elsa was five years old, and her father relocated the family to Edmonton, Canada after the second World War. An engineer who made significant innovations in the use of prefabricated concrete, he helped build major public projects there. Her siblings, an older sister and brother, were accomplished in the fields of medicine and engineering, and Elsa, along with her sister, became highly skilled in technical crafts like ceramics, knitting, and sewing. She went on to attend the Alberta College of Art and Design (today the Alberta University of Arts) in Calgary where she met her future husband, Clayton Patterson, and in 1976 the pair enrolled in Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. In 1979, they emigrated to Manhattan, where they have lived ever since. The gallery first exhibited Rensaa’s work in the group exhibition, Breakthrough in 2023.”

Have a look at this three-minute film from the late 1980s, which reflects Patterson and Rensaa’s Lower East Side style of life and art. The film was shot by Patterson’s father. The music is by Gryphon Rue.

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