New York

The Transcendental Trash of Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt makes kitsch from the kitchen, using everyday materials such as cellophane, glitter, foil, and Easter-display grass to construct minutely detailed and coded ephemera that sanctify camp, trash, and a kind of queer sentimentality particular to the artist’s experience of the 1970s Hell’s Kitchen scene in New York. Ecce HomoPavel Zoubok Gallery’s current three-part exhibition, orbits around this artist’s counter-historical queer aesthetic. On the heels of his extensive solo show at MoMA PS1 earlier this year, the exhibition situates his work within a larger context of queer materiality in art making, presenting a selection of Lanigan-Schmidt’s intricate, devotional mixed-media compositions alongside the work of other queer artists who have preceded him. The final part of the exhibition’s trifecta is an orchestrated group show of artists who have continued working with the tropes of Lanigan-Schmidt’s technique, aesthetic, and cultural caché.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt. The Fountain of Youth (Spritzer Thaw), 1969; Aluminum foil, plastic wrap, pipe cleaner, holographic tape, glitter, staples, mirror, colored marker; 13 x 10 x 9 in. Courtesy of the artist and Pavel Zoubok Gallery, New York.

The exhibition functions as a pocket of queer history, presenting an alternative and largely unassimilated history of queer art making. It situates Lanigan-Schmidt’s work within the context of the underground, culturally illicit queer community of the pre-Stonewall era. The gallery’s Cabinet space presents a range of documentation surrounding the now fabled 1969 riots (in which the artist was an active participant). Fred W. McDarrah’s photograph Celebration After Riots Outside Stonewall Inn (1969) positions “Tommy” Lanigan-Schmidt at the scene; Uzi Parnes’s Marsha P. Johnson (1979) documents the arrest of the famous transgender rights activist. When presented in this context, Lanigan-Schmidt’s gaudiness is lent gravity and perspective. In late 1960s America, queerness was not only repressed but also punishable by jail and even death. As an openly gay artist, Lanigan-Schmidt produced his work not only from the trashy materiality of his kitchen drawer but also from the social position of “cultural trash,” of refuse and violent ostracization.

Lanigan-Schmidt’s work thus seeks to finds the power in trash—to make trash transcendent. Glitter, sequins, and other iridescent materials are often associated with a queer, drag performance aesthetic. Coupled with the artist’s constructed plastic halos, elaborate chalice vessels, and his ornately framed portraits of camp icons, such materials recall the kind of street spirituality of the dime-store devotional: handmade trinkets that can be purchased cheaply but are meant to serve a transcendent purpose. The show takes its title from Pontius Pilate’s famous remark, made as he gestured to Jesus on the cross before the throbbing masses: “Behold the man.” The show’s press release briefly addresses the striking similarity between a scourged Christ figure and the persecution of the pre-Stonewall gay community. In sublimating a queer aesthetic to the language of religious iconography, Lanigan-Schmidt endeavors to connect the user of his objects with a higher “something,” inspiring a state of piousness and worship for the freak, the camp icon, the outlier deprived of cultural capital.

The phrase “behold the man” also invites pointed attention toward gender and the politics of liberation. In its positioning of a largely paternal history of queer rebellion, Ecce Homo begs the critical examination of how the “gay male” stands in as a signifier for queer culture and queerness itself. To this day, the pursuit of gay liberation remains a cause with a masculine face. From Jack Smith’s experimentation with queer identity making in intimate portrait photography and collage to Lanigan-Schmidt’s self-portrait pastiches to works like Christopher Tanner’s kitschy dedicational mosaic, the exhibition maps out a kind of paternal lineage of gay male artists. Tanner’s For My Father (2007), a highlight of the group show in Pavel Zoubok’s Gallery 2, is a large, three-panel mosaic that takes up a sizable portion of the gallery wall. The mosaic feminizes the Oedipal relationship through an obsessive detailing of sequins, pearls, glitter, and cryptically engraved plaques.

Tanner’s personal narrative of tension with an abstract father figure reads as both intimate and profoundly honest. In its appropriation of feminine tropes (pieces of braided blond hair, doilies, and champagne-colored jeweled beads), the mosaic is a particularly strong example of the gay male impulse to sublimate femininity into objects, thereby treating these objects as accessories to a presumed masculinity. Tanner’s mosaic presents a troubling pastiche of an imagined womanhood—a vision of a fantasy feminine that has little to do with the concrete reality of its source material. By appealing to femininity even while reaching out toward a lost phantom father, the works in Gallery 2 are haunted by the specter of an oppressive patriarchy.

Process is essential to Lanigan-Schmidt’s work. The labor of his objects is apparent on their surface; the artist visibly solders his materials together with an excessive amount of office staples. Queerness itself becomes a ritualized commodity. In reflecting upon all the glitter in this show, I am reminded of the viral YouTube video Tons of F’ing Sequins, in which an excited and sleep-deprived young shopper is made infamous for dropping an F-bomb on the local news at the Goodwill glitter sale. The joke of the video, of course, is that sequins are so closely linked with a kind of queer ecstasy that they might inspire spontaneous breaches of social code. The intense popularity of this ecstatic moment has spawned an internet celebrity, a meme, and, of course, a T-shirt—a salient example of the commodification of the public expression of queerness.

Christopher Tanner. For My Father, 2007; mixed media on wood; 60 x 60 in. Courtesy of the artist and Smart Clothes Gallery.

In contrast to a public response that has co-opted this spontaneous production of “queerness” for capitalistic purposes, Lanigan-Schmidt seeks to turn his own personal experience into a kind of handmade, sacred commodity of labor. For this artist, the commodification of identity can be read as a tool of survival. In elevating the handmade to the level of iconography, he seeks to construct queer community “from scratch” by mythologizing a personal past. In his endeavor to create sublime trash, he transgresses the boundaries of traditional art-making, and in the subversive, baroque reapplication of everyday ephemera, he courts the revolution. In using the materials of his own life, Lanigan-Schmidt incites a riot against hetero-normative formalism—invoking the same revolutionary spirit that led to the Stonewall riots and a turning point in queer culture.

Considering Lanigan-Schmidt’s work in the context of the white-walled gallery, I was so seduced by the sparkling intricacy of his designs that it was difficult to consider the whole picture, to take a few steps back and acclimatize myself to the function of these objects and what they are. The extensive framing of the three parts at Pavel Zoubok Gallery situates Lanigan-Schmidt’s oeuvre as such a detail: an important historical moment that is essential to remember in light of the queer struggle. But it is not the whole picture. Just as his devotionals accumulate a collection of fragments that transubstantiate into a splendid image, his work presents a crucial fragment of a queer narrative that is constantly mutating: a queerness defined by the tension between a search for home and the fervent desire to transcend.

Ecce Homo, on view at Pavel Zoubok Gallery in New York, has been extended through August 9th.