A year to the month that he was released from 17 years in prison, Michael Alig was strolling through the corridors of the Select Art Fair in Chelsea, where his paintings of Amanda Lepore, Leigh Bowery and others from his old Limelight crew were on sale for thousands of dollars.
The onetime King of the Club Kids, who in 1997 pled guilty to the manslaughter of roommate Angel Melendez, wasn’t hard to spot, thanks to a bright red shirt that read ALIG in Lego font. Last time we spoke to him, just a couple of weeks after his release, his t-shirt read CALL MY AGENT, and though he says he has yet to find representation in the art world, he’s found an enthusiastic booster in Alex Mitow of LESpace, who’s helping put on a trio of simultaneous shows on the Lower East Side in mid-July. Another supporter is Marilyn Manson, who might also get involved in the Alig-themed art crawl.
We spoke to Alig last night at a bar near Select Fair (his parole terms have eased to the point where he can now stay out past 8pm, though his drink order was a simple lemonade.) He told us he wanted to call the series of shows, set to open July 16, something along the lines of “Triptych: Michael Alig’s Triple Feature” — a nod to the old theaters of Times Square. But his collaborators weren’t into it. “They thought people wouldn’t take it seriously. They said the name was very important because with something like this it would be very easy for people to say it was a gimmick. But it is a gimmick.”
According to Mitow, it’s “pretty much set in stone,” though a contract hasn’t yet been signed, that Orchard Street gallery Castle Fitzjohns will be the show’s anchor, displaying about 40 of the 200+ paintings Alig created in prison. LESpace, located in the Allen Street space that used to house Mitow’s restaurant Los Perros Locos, would feature some of Alig’s fashion-themed works, with an accompanying show of club kid costumes and maybe even an onsite hair-and-makeup artist. A third space would feature memorabilia from the Disco 2000 days. Alig said there would be an “Alig mart” selling, among other things, a forthcoming line of T-shirts featuring his paintings of “zombie kids” and other art. (A rejected design featured the coinage “ALIGATION.” Get it? Allegation? “I thought it was really clever,” Alig told us, “but I can understand the implications and why they took it off.”)
There may also be a panel discussion involving Alig, some nightlife fixtures of the era, and possibly a celebrity moderator – “hopefully Marilyn Manson, but we’re not sure,” Mitow said. (Alig recently posted a photo of himself licking Manson’s face backstage at a concert.)
And on top of this, a dinner party.
The details of this Michaelpalooza, as one might call it, are still solidifying — Alig said four spaces would be involved while Mitow said it would probably be three. Alig said he has spent a good eight months trying to make the production happen: “It was a logistics nightmare to find four galleries where the owners didn’t hate each other, or were jealous of each other, and that all have the same openings in their calendar and that would all work with me and were all within a block of each other.”
According to Mitow, one company was initially excited but ultimately backed off because it didn’t want to jeopardize its ties with the name brands it also worked with. That “mix of excitement and trepidation,” as he put it, is par for the course where Alig’s post-prison career is concerned.
“People will stop me in the street and say, ‘My best friend is such and such, here’s a card,’” Alig told us. “And then it’ll be all set up and I can pretty much in my mind see what’s going to happen. They go to the person and either the person says, ‘You’re crazy, no,’ or somebody will say they’ll want to do it but maybe they’re part of a group in a PR company [that won’t get involved].”
Mitow, who also runs a catering and an events company, says he connected with Alig through a friend. “When I first heard about this I thought, ‘Yeah, it’ll get attention.’ When I thought about it and met Michael and looked at his work I realized this is something where he got out of prison, everyone knows the story, but he hasn’t had an opportunity to do anything legit since he got out because he can’t walk into a store and get a job, no one will hire him. But he’s got this great art collection. I don’t feel like he should be judged for what he did – he was judged, he went away for 17 years and now he has an opportunity to show his work.”
Alig is certainly used to being judged. One need only read the comments section of our feature about him to hear from his critics. But he doesn’t mind that “there’ve always been people who loved me and people who hated me – there’s never been anybody in between.” After all, “Everybody I’ve always liked is somebody who people either hate or love,” he told us. “Those are the only interesting people. I guess it’s kind of nice to be one of those people – it means you stand for something.”
So what exactly does Alig’s self-described “pop” art stand for? He’s aware that some consider it derivative, but he doesn’t sweat that (“I can’t think of anything that isn’t derivative,” he said) and he’s the first to point to his major influence: “Well, you know, I mean obviously Andy Warhol.” (Victor P. Corona, a lecturer in Columbia’s sociology department, is currently writing a book that traces New York City culture from Warhol to Alig to Lady Gaga; he’s even had Alig speak at his classes.)
Even as a party promoter, Alig reveled in creativity – he points to clubland fixtures who went on to achieve success, to varying degrees, as mainstream artists: RuPaul, Moby, Amanda Lepore, Richie Rich. And he’s always skirted around the gallery world – his onetime roommate, he said, was close to Keith Haring. He remembered seeing the artist’s work on MTV News during a trip back home to Indiana in the mid-’80s: “It was my first indication that something was happening in New York City. I sensed at the time that [Haring’s art] was really important, but when I saw it on TV I felt validated.”
But Alig didn’t start painting until he was behind bars. It was Robert “Freeze” Riggs, also convicted in Melendez’s killing, who suggested he take it up. “We were losing our minds, basically, and didn’t have anyone to talk to,” Alig said. The prison didn’t have an art program, Alig said, but he got supplies from outside and eventually shared them with fellow inmates who couldn’t afford them (according to Mitow, Alig now teaches art therapy classes and the Art Therapy Outreach Center is set to be a partner in the July show).
Alig said he hated his first five paintings, but strangely they were the ones his longtime cohort James St. James – another club kid who has gone on to mainstream success as a writer, curator, and television personality – liked most when he first perused Alig’s prison output. Among the paintings from that time are mock ads for pharmaceutical companies, featuring nightlife personalities like Jenny Talia (aka Jenny Dembrow, who went on to become a director of the Lower Eastside Girls Club). Alig said the series was inspired by watching television in prison and, for the first time, seeing medication marketed directly to consumers.
A painting Alig showed us on his laptop depicts Macaulay Culkin playing Alig in Party Monster. Another series consists of portraits of “homophobic world leaders,” as the artist describes them, with “cum splotches” – yes, actual ones – on their faces. The series features Bush, Cheney, and Putin, among others. To create the one of Hitler, titled “Michael’s Cum in Hitler’s Face,” Alig stood over the painting and jerked off onto Adolf’s chin. Another work features Mickey Mouse in front of a swastika. “People really misunderstand them,” the artist said of these works.
I asked Alig what kind of interest his paintings, which at Select are priced from around $3,000 to $7,000, have gotten from buyers. Has Richie Rich offered to purchase his portrait? “He couldn’t afford it!” Alig laughed, holding in a mouthful of BLT sandwich.
But Mitow says there’s been interest in the paintings. “I know that Marilyn Manson was talking about buying two or three of them,” he said, adding that a “major art collector” asked him to hold the painting of Amanda Lepore as Marilyn Monroe.
Meanwhile, Alig continues to work with an editor to complete a memoir, tentatively titled Aligula, that will eventually be shopped to publishers by an agent at Sterling Lord, known for representing the likes of Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey. Ideally, Alig said, the book will be “more of an art project” complete with CDs of music representing DJ Keoki and other contemporaries.
Eventually, Alig may also get back into hosting events, as you might guess from the forthcoming gallery shows. “I would like to do other kinds of events but not right now,” he said. “I need to do other things first. I want people to know that I’m not a one-trick pony.”