November 19, 2012  |  Artists, MoMA PS1
Drag Queens and Chalices: The Art of Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt

In the video below, take a tour of multimedia artist Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt’s studio. His mixed-media constructions, collages, and installations—marked by a trashy opulence concocted from household items and dollar stores—are the subject of the exhibition Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Tender Love Among the Junk, on view at MoMA PS1 through April 1, 2013.

Whenever someone uses the word microcosm, they are almost always exaggerating for effect. To really constitute a tiny universe, a system or experience has to be so complex, so varied, and so filled with signs, symbols, and their interrelating behaviors as to generate their own physical force fields, with gravitational pulls and currents and rotations that revolve helplessly and devotedly around a center, a center that itself is the genesis for the world whose nexus he or she helms. No one personifies this more than the artist Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, a multimedia artist who has lived in New York since the 1960s, and though he was part of the Holly Solomon Gallery stable in her heyday in the 1980s, his work has, for decades, been under-the-radar and resisted inclusion into the larger American art-historical canon.

Lanigan-Schmidt makes his home from an unlikely perch on the fifth floor of a tenement building on the fringe of the Times Square theater district, just off 8th Avenue on 49th Street. Apart from the obligatory midtown Starbucks and Duane Read on the corner, the neighborhood itself is still alive with a very particular and variegated New York history. The Pentecostal Puerto Rican church down the block is very active. The firehouse across 8th Avenue (the one that once saved the artist’s building from burning down in the 1980s) still boasts strapping gentlemen who mostly sit around watching sports and daytime television. The decrepit Irish pub, The Blarney Stone, next door still obliges the roosting eccentric tenants, and the buildings’ ever bumbling, ever vigilant super, Diego, watches over his patch of the urban fabric. Only 300 yards away, a digital solar system of screens and moving pictures glows insistently with the language of consumerism, establishing their own kind of orbital pull. Beyond this world of cars and pixels and pedestrians, an even richer cosmos is rarely ever seen. Five floors up the narrow halls of Lanigan-Schmidt’s tidy building, a door opens up onto utter, dazzling entropy.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt. Lollipop Knick Knack (Let’s Talk About You), c. 1968–69. Mixed media. 9 x 16 x 5 1/2 inches. Courtesy Pavel Zoubok Gallery.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt. Lollipop Knick Knack (Let’s Talk About You). c. 1968-69. Mixed media, 9 x 16 x 5 1/2″. Courtesy Pavel Zoubok Gallery

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt’s radically maximalist approach to ornamentation and decoration spills over onto every surface, into the very fibers of every part of the space that surrounds him. When one enters his apartment, one is first confronted by the shrine atop his refrigerator with glitter, tinsel, a princess, a Café Bustelo Coffee can, some peanut butter, and a tube of toothpaste. Above the stove, there’s another altar, this one dedicated to Jack Smith, replete with a tiny bottle of sexual potency fluid he got from the health store around the corner (where he also gets his daily vitamins). Books are stacked high on every surface, and tiny bits of ripped paper or lined index cards are taped to every surface, marked with cryptic time stamps (I later learn these are just accumulated reminders for cooking times that he never bothers to remove). A pillar of Lean Cuisine boxes girds part of the small table in his kitchen, whose linoleum floors, walls, and ceiling are covered with painted flowers, Rococo swirls, and glittered putti whose faces are made from the babies on the packaging of Charmin toilet paper. His DVD and VHS collection, ranging from Pasolini’s Teorema to Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, teeters from tall stacked shelves. White drinkable yogurt bottles are cut, stacked, and hung on the corner of a bookshelf like a miniature leaning tower of Pisa, and stacks of pizza boxes are covered with glitter, holographic “disco” tape, house pieces, parts, and trim that the artist makes, which ultimately serve as the constituent elements of his finished pieces. Lanigan-Schmidt isn’t content to merely make artwork, but treats the comprising material as miniature sub-artworks in themselves. His domestic space plays a profound role in shaping not just the style of the artwork and the material that goes into them, but also the scale and their method of display.

In “The Significance of the Beautiful Semblance,” Walter Benjamin defines beauty as “semblance—the sensuous appearance of an idea or the sensuous appearance of the true. The beautiful is neither the veil nor the veiled object, but rather the object in its veil.” Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt is an artist who manages a kind of alchemy with household materials, raiding the kitchen drawer and the bathroom cabinet for tissue paper, aluminum foil, plastic wrap, cellophane, food coloring, floor wax, Scotch tape, staples, and more glitter than any drag queen could possibly wear. He transubstantiates the everyday into the obsessively beautiful and insistently miraculous. In doing this, he proves Benjamin’s edict, showing that an object traditionally made from gold and precious gemstones couldn’t possibly approximate the beauty of the magnificently crinkled, velvety gold foil from which he makes one of his trademark chalices; the wringing and rumpling of his hands on the foil leaves a physical trace of the artist’s coaxings, worrying the material into a transformed state. It isn’t just the artist’s hand that accomplishes the transformative process of the most modest of materials, with a powerful emotional energy he wills them with desire and longing until they mutate into the most lavish, opulent, and ethereal of sacred objects. One could venture to describe the sum total of his work as a treasury of devotion. Or, as Lanigan-Schmidt puts it more simply “it’s not about the gold, but the glow.”