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Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt’s first major work was made on, and of, East 4th Street. It was 1968 and the artist was new to New York, a runaway from Linden, New Jersey who had recently been rejected from Cooper Union, because, he thinks, he wrote his application essay about being gay. The 20-year-old stenciled the words “Object Art” all over his block and sent a note to the Village Voice proclaiming that he had made “New York’s first real environmental art.” Critic John Perreault covered the project, a review Lanigan-Schmidt immediately recontextualized by pasting the newspaper clippings over a background made of black garbage bags. The collage is one of the poignantly personal pieces that anchor his survey, Tenemental (With Sighs Too Deep For Words), at Howl! Happening, a gallery with an eye toward the bohemian legacy of the East Village.
Lanigan-Schmidt constructs his assemblages from household materials: foil, plastic wrap, tape, staples. The dense content points toward both a working-class Catholic upbringing in New Jersey and an indigent New York tenement life, one backgrounded by gentrification. A centerpiece of his show, “The Preying Hands” (1985), is fronted by a prayer-kneeler, while in the background tenements are like small objects in a greater ideological conspiracy, the paper buildings scaled to a psychological-size equivalent of Perrier bottles and tennis player figurines. Above them, a grand home altar depicts the first Thanksgiving alongside skeletal evocations of death, rats, cockroaches, Pac-Mans, and Ms. Piggys.
A self-described “lay-person” Catholic, Lanigan-Schmidt reacts to a loss of the magnificent rituals he remembers from childhood after the Second Vatican Council modernized the church in the 1960s. He situates Christian art in the varied, unassimilated customs of its believers. In “Original Backdrop to PanisAngelicus” (early 1970s), the artist captures the baroque splendor of the Forty Hours’ Devotion ceremony using multicolored foil he might have found in the pantry of his pious childhood home. In “Mysterium Tremendum” (late 1980s), a collection of disposable lasagna pans, affixed with narrative drawings, tell the story of a boy named Willie who gets beaten up by neighborhood bullies, considers suicide, and ultimately feels an adrenalized comfort working on his art. The drawings exalt Willie’s experience to the level of religious myth. Simultaneously, there is an obsessive relationship with the past, the fixation of someone whose memories are too acute — perhaps too painful — to leave anything behind.
While glitzy pieces abound in Tenemental, an affecting underside of the show is concerned with documenting a life so intimate that it would be lost if not framed in a gallery. Lines written as punishment by a Catholic school student with perfect script hang in one corner of the gallery. Self-portraits Lanigan-Schmidt drew as a teenager occupy glass cases alongside photographs of his friends. There are no wall labels, but the show feels unusually generous about drawing viewers into its multi-generational world. Beneath a photograph of Charles Ludlum, Lanigan-Schmidt includes a scrap of lined paper scrawled with the words “Famous Gay Playwright.”
One year after Lanigan-Schmidt got his first, good write-up, he revolted with a number of other gay kids during a police raid at the Stonewall Inn. The event was famously photographed by Fred McDarrah, whose picture of Lanigan-Schmidt standing on the edge of a crowd hangs near the show’s entrance. The wall is busy with other artworks, as though this piece of gay history is an old family photograph, or some other memento in a home cramped with emotions and traditions: Lanigan-Schmidt inhabits this space with all of the fervent, considered ambivalence an outsider needs to make his way through life.
Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Tenemental (With Sighs Too Deep For Words) continues at Howl! Happening through December 19.