Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt and Byzantine Art

I first learned about Lanigan-Schmidt’s work from a NYTimes review of the exhibition “Tender Love Among the Junk” at MoMA PS1 (18 November 2012–7 April 2013). In his art he uses every kind of unconventional art material to create images of beauty, religiosity, and storytelling. One could say his use of materials is a kind of act of redemption that helps us see colourful and reflected items of trash for their aesthetically complex potential. I think it’s great that we can compare his colourful and decorative work to Byzantine art, despite the contradictory sensibilities regarding the use of materials. (Byzantine artists almost never use cheap or inexpensive materials.) Why he chose to explore Byzantine art’s visual tradition of icons and icon screens remains a mystery to me. This is not iconography or decorative traditions from his youth in Elizabeth, NJ.

He is not the first contemporary artist I’ve encountered who uses the iconographical and decorative culture of Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches for new purposes. His art that takes viewers to the collision between sacred and profane (although I’m not really sure how the artist defines these concepts), where chalices, altars, and crowns are cleaved from their original context and installed into art galleries—the churches of our so-called modern culture. Andres Seranno’s famous photograph of the crucifix immersed into urine has defined this genre of appropriation and critique using religious symbolism for cultural commentary. These artists use the weight and sometimes even some of the semantic value of inherited cultural symbols to express their own views on “the church” or to tell personal narratives.

The reviewer puts his work into historical context by suggesting his work is a kind of decorative or flamboyant response to the sobriety of Minimalism of the 1970s. He is also categorized as another gay artist; his exuberant style and pornographic content of some works is a form of camp, the epitome of a gay aesthetic if the 70s and 80s.  Third, his professed religious convictions and technique distinguish him from the hegemonic art world which lead to another comparison to the outsider artist James Hampton whose own use of discarded silver and gold foil is most memorably seen in his work, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly (now at the Smithsonian American Art Museum). And, finally, he is placed in the 70s New York art world and the Pattern and Decoration Movement with art dealer Holly Solomon.

To my mind, Lanigan-Schmidt’s genuine faith in institutional religion places his work in an entirely separate path of artists who allow themselves to understand their personal experiences and relationships are shaped by religious communities.  His own life includes conflict around his  sexuality which means it is no surprise that he, like so many others, seeks to redeem his relationship with the church that censured him. Is this is perhaps one of the main reasons why his work hasn’t become more widely known by a broader public? You don’t need me to say that religious conviction has not been in vogue in the art world for the past century and a half. While the critics and academics who attempt to put his work into words have successfully analyzed the cultural context for his personal narrative as a gay man in New York City, I’d like to see a deep analysis of his religious convictions and influences. Perhaps his work presents an opportunity for us to see that religious / Christian art comes from many different kinds of artists?

1. Mysterium Tremendum, late 1980s

Overwhelming mystery or numinous. This work tells the story of a young altar boy who was abused by older teenagers, who fell in love with another boy, who turned his intense emotional pain into self-cutting, and who found art as a way to redeem his story. He uses dozens of baking pans decorated with pictures and handwritten notes and an audio track with these stories chanted. The connection to chants used to celebrate Mass dovetails nicely with the artist’s overall intentions to transform ordinary materials into spiritually rich and beautiful images. Another connection to chant which is also used extensively for the Psalms puts his storytelling—his laments and cries for help—into the very long tradition of the Psalmist’s prayers for aid.

2. Iconostasis, 1977–78

This work recreates a free-standing wall of icons of the Virgin and Child and other saints similar to what was used in Byzantine and Orthodox churches to separate the space around the altar from the nave. This work very strongly demonstrates his use of Catholic or Orthodox iconography, obviously, and leaves me wondering what is he trying to conceal? or reveal?

Here’s a YouTube video of the artist being interviewed for the show at PS1:

Another video of the artist interviewed by MoMA:

Occhiogrosso, Peter.Once a Catholic: prominent Catholics and ex-Catholics reveal the influence of the church on their lives and work. Ballantine Books, 1989ISBN 978-0-345-35670-3

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