New York

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, The Gilded Summer Palace of Czarina Tatlina, 1969–70/2012, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, The Gilded Summer Palace of Czarina Tatlina, 1969–70/2012, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, The Gilded Summer Palace of Czarina Tatlina, 1969–70/2012, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Pick any single work by Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, and chances are it glows. Or sparkles, or shimmers, or, at the very least, reflects light, thanks to some medley of the glitter, foil, theatrical gel, tinsel, cellophane, neon tape, floor shine, and vinyl with which the artist forges collages, sculptural objects, and installations. The effect of encountering 160 such works, packed in vitrines and jamming the walls and columns of a single gallery at MoMA PS1, was quite literally dazzling; the lights were dim, one imagined, since the art was coruscating enough on its own. And because many of the objects are religious in form and theme, a mood approaching reverence ensued. Even the rats, figured in a few small sculptures here and there, were studded with rhinestones.

A photocopied handout offered some context on the rodents. In it, Lanigan-Schmidt, one of Stonewall’s few living veterans, gives a stirring account of the 1969 raid, identifying himself and fellow bar patrons as “street rats.” But the connotative, colloquial associations of “rat”—as someone who scurries across party lines, traitorously or invisibly—also provide an apt emblem for Lanigan-Schmidt’s outsider status, which this retrospective of almost four decades goes some way toward modifying even while exposing its causes. It’s tricky to fit him in anywhere. His more-is-more aesthetic ran afoul of the cooler orthodoxies that prevailed when he started working in the late ’60s, and there is also the matter of the fundamental clash that his practice accommodates handily: homosexuality and the church (Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox). He manipulates such down-market materials as linoleum and plastic wrap with assiduous affection, twisting, stapling, and gluing them into tokens of devotion such as crowns or chalices. What looks on first glance untethered to convention is actually dense with reference, not only ecclesiastical but art historical, evidenced here in riffs on Rubens, Mondrian, and Giacometti. Lanigan-Schmidt’s output is too canny to be kitsch, too sincere for camp, too trashy to be construed as a swipe at commodity treasure.

Raised in the working-class, churchgoing city of Linden, New Jersey, Lanigan-Schmidt decamped for Manhattan in the late ’60s. Smarting from rejection by Cooper Union, which he believed was the result of his being gay, he retreated to the confines of his East Village apartment, mounting environmental extravaganzas for a coterie of intimates. Reconstructed here was one such effort, The Gilded Summer Palace of Czarina Tatlina, 1969–70/2012, a room bedecked with tinfoil stars and stanchions, gossamer streamers, and Byzantine bibelots, which had been conceived as a refuge for a drag queen alter ego he dreamed up for Vladimir Tatlin. A reputational boost for Lanigan-Schmidt arrived in the form of Holly Solomon, with whom he would show for nearly thirty years and share what appears to have been a relationship of fondness and badinage: Holly Solomon Arriving on 57th Street, 1983, reimagines the dealer as a Baroque princess exiting the subway, while a ca. 1988 mural comprises an arrangement of family photos and gilded cherubs that adorned one of her bedroom walls. Many of the selections, though, were petite, intended for private ritual or contemplation: a Communion vessel shaped from pipe cleaners, a saint’s portrait on an aluminum pan.

If the bulk of Lanigan-Schmidt’s materials read as loosely effeminate, sexuality is also explicit throughout, both in passing (snippets of porn nestled in various collages) and, in certain works, in toto (Mysterium Tremendum, ca. late ’80s, recounts in 125 baking-tray vignettes the story of a gay altar boy). Yet homosexuality does not emerge as at odds with religion and its trappings; it is almost as if their collision in the work has effected an uneasy, if abiding, resolution of Eros with faith. Endeavors such as Iconostasis, ca. 1977–78, a multipanel, freestanding wall of Christian icons, could have issued only from the hand of a believer. Lanigan-Schmidt’s process of converting junk into relics has been likened, in the exhibition’s supporting texts and elsewhere, to one of transubstantiation, with an emphasis on the redemptive aspect of the sacrament. But the doctrine entails, crucially, a change of substance only, whereby bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood yet remain food and drink in appearance. This art may gesture toward the heavens, but its means, at once humble and gaudy, stand as stubborn reminders that transcendence can happen only through, not in spite of, the stuff of the here and now.

Lisa Turvey