Michael Alig: Painter of Modern Nightlife?

The artist and his work

Penny Arcade, the sage of downtown, has been telling us, since 1992, “If you don’t have a functioning criminal class in your art scene, you have academia.”

Michael Alig
Michael Alig
Photo by Inaki Vinaixa

Setting aside her point about academia, I’ve always understood her to be defending, even celebrating, the roles in a vital arts community of insistent non-conformism; a lack of judgment around drugs, sex and sex work; and, in general, a rejection of safe, comfortable middle-class values. When she talks about the productive role of criminal behavior, she does not mean, I feel confident saying, manslaughter.

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Up until Michael Alig’s well-publicized—and even legendary—killing of fellow club kid Angel Melendez, he was largely living the avant-garde criminal lifestyle that Arcade prescribes. Alig’s Clubland fantasia of drugs and costumes and aggressive irreverence demonstrated an almost innocent delight in, as the French say, épater le bourgeois.

But in 1996 any possibility of innocence ended violently and abruptly when Alig and his roommate, known as Freeze, killed Melendez in a drug-fueled fight and gruesomely disposed of his body. Alig was in prison for the crime from 1997 until last year, 17 years. During that time, the story was told again and again. There’s the 1998 documentary film Party Monster: The Shockumentary; James St. James’ 1999 memoir Disco Bloodbath; and the 2003 movie adaptation of St. James’ book, written and directed by the same team who made the documentary, also called Party Monster and starring Macaulay Culkin as Alig. It’s maybe lighter than strictly appropriate, but very entertaining and has become something of a cult classic.

Because his story is so well known, Alig remains an astonishingly polarizing figure. He has ended up feeding the controversy, whether intentionally or not, by being so willing to talk candidly about that tragic episode in 1996, as well as about his experience of prison. This has kept him in the spotlight and led to vigorous debate about whether it’s possible to be authentically remorseful while rebuilding a public profile on the foundation of his notoriety.

In prison, he got off drugs and took up painting. Although Alig’s artwork was much discussed in the media frenzy around his release from prison, he has not showed the paintings until now. This week, a selection of them will be on view in the Monarch Projects booth at SELECT art fair, taking place in Chelsea.

Zombie Girl on Swing
Michael Alig, Zombie Girl on Swing

Alig’s paintings have a pop art sensibility—Andy Warhol is the often-cited and obvious influence (and I see some John Wesley in them, too)—and include celebrity portraits of Clubland luminaries from then and now, such as Leigh Bowery and Amanda Lepore. Others feature green-skinned zombie children at play. Some of the paintings incorporate pharmaceutical company logos, pointedly mocking celebrity spokesmodels and the consumerism of the drug business: Bowery for Merck, Lepore for Lilly, zombie kids for Roche.

Monarch Projects is presenting Alig’s paintings as part of a group show at SELECT Fair. The other artists in the show are painters Christopher Minafo and Todd Goldman, photographer James Miille, “food fashionista” Ishara Jayakody, and sculptor David Safhay. Monarch Projects is a collaboration between Lower East Side galleries/event producers FAME by Alex Mitow and Imagination in Space.

Alig’s paintings—and the rest of the Monarch Projects show—will be on view at SELECT Fair at Center 548 (548 W. 22nd St.) May 14–17 (the VIP opening reception is at 6:00 pm May 13).

And now, 5 questions Michael Alig has never been asked:

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1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

The most perceptive thing anyone has ever asked or pointed out about my artwork was a question regarding the dichotomy of innocence and corruption evident in most of my paintings. The puppy with the hypodermic syringe; the baby who is also a vampire. Everything I have ever done, from Disco 2000 to Project X to the club kids themselves, has had the same split-image: Cute and innocent on the one hand, slightly disconcerting on the other. Like a Pee Wee Herman grin or sweet-looking Kewpie doll that might bite you if touched.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

The artist and his work
The artist and his work

The most idiotic question anyone has ever asked was, “What’s that supposed to mean?” Artwork, obviously, is meant to be subjective. Ten people can look at the same painting and arrive at ten different meanings. For an artist to outright tell a viewer of his or her art what it means is, I think, offensive both to the artist and the viewer. A piece of art is supposed to invoke a feeling that shouldn’t need to be explained in words. If it needs an explanation, either the artist or the viewer hasn’t done their work.

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

The weirdest question anyone has ever asked about my work is…”What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked about my work?” I mean, everyone already knows how weird I am. I guess they just don’t bother asking anymore!

4) I’ve seen people respond with a lot of hostility to the post-prison life you’re creating for yourself. For example, there are the long and lively discussions under a couple of Penny Arcade’s Facebook posts from February (here and here), after you and she worked on a movie together. Part of the hostility arises from the fact that you are re-establishing yourself as a public figure in the art and cultural worlds of New York, rather than discretely disappearing into contrite private life—and this show of your paintings is unavoidably part of that public profile. Of course, there are also those, including in those same discussions (and including Penny Arcade), who support your prerogative to begin afresh after duly serving your time. Do you follow these debates about you? Do you understand the hostility and your detractors’ points of view? Or do you think it’s unfair that you’re still being judged?

Well, I used to follow the debates about me.The first few days I was home, I couldn’t do anything but read the comments sections after the articles. No one had warned me yet not to do this. I nearly had a nervous breakdown, it was alarming to see there was so much animosity out there geared at me by people who didn’t know, and in many cases had never even met, me. It didn’t make sense to me that a person who had never had any actual contact with me could harbor such strong feelings of hostility against me.

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After seeing the movie and documentary, I can at least understand where it came from. I wasn’t exactly the kindest, most humble person back when I was using drugs. Not that I am blaming everything on drugs. I was sober when I made the decision to use drugs, therefore I must assume responsibility for anything I did while on them. Watching the documentary and movie myself, I could easily see why someone wouldn’t like me. I didn’t like me after watching them! I was an arrogant asshole!

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It’s a wonder I have any friends at all from those days, let along the amazing group I have. That’s a testament to the person I was before I began using drugs. The friends I have now are the same friends I had thirty years ago, when I barely even drank. They know the real, non-drug-addict me. And these are some very intelligent, creative, successful and good-hearted people. They wouldn’t be friends with me today if they for one second believed I am the person portrayed in the media. I have since stopped reading the comments sections and my life is a lot less stressful!

5) You and others have mentioned Andy Warhol as an influence on your paintings. Aesthetically, of course, that makes perfect sense for your portraits, which are colorful, playful and clever. When did you begin painting and what role does this creative outlet fill for you? When you started, did you experiment with other styles, subjects, etc., or did you know immediately that pop-y celebrity portraits were exactly what you wanted to paint? What does Warhol’s legacy mean to you?

I began painting about a year after i went to prison. My co-defendant, Freeze, actually suggested I get some art supplies just to make the time go by faster by painting. My first three or four paintings weren’t what you’d call “masterpieces.” They were pretty bad, in fact! I’m embarrassed to show them to people. Interestingly enough, when James St. James looked through my entire collection of paintings, the one he chose as his favorite was the first piece I made, a portrait of Leigh Bowery. He says he likes it precisely because of its naivety. So there you go. You just never know what people will like.

From the very beginning I knew I wanted to go in the direction of pop art. Not just because of the Warhol connection, but because I like the style. And because it’s one of the easiest to paint! The Warhol thing also makes sense, because what we were doing with the club kid thing was sort of an updated extension of what Warhol was doing. It’s what we were known for, taking ideas that had come before, or that were coming out of Clubland, and massifying them. It’s what we did with acid house and ecstasy and club culture itself. Its a reason some people never liked me, because they like to keep ideas like these a secret. It’s an elitist thing. Whereas I am a populist. I like to spread ideas to as many people as possible, because there are always going to be new ideas to replace the old ones. This is what keeps society and culture moving forward.

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So much of what is happening in today’s world is a direct result of what Warhol started; his work is in many ways more relevant today than ever. I’m not the only one carrying on his tradition. Lady Gaga is, I think, his ultimate, all time creation. The Superstar to end all Superstars! I often wonder what he would think of the Fame Monster if he were alive today.

Bonus Questions:

6) During the height of your time as club kid royalty—when you were dressing up extravagantly, organizing elaborate theme events, appearing on talk shows, driving avant-garde nightlife—did you consider yourself an artist and/or your club kid existence as an artistic project? The subjects of your paintings, Leigh Bowery and Amanda Lepore, for instance, are renowned nightlife and performance art stars. Are the paintings of a piece with what you were doing in the ‘90s, or do you see them as a break and a move in a new direction?

Leigh Bowery
One of Alig’s portraits of
Leigh Bowery

That’s an interesting question, because the reality is: No, I never did consider what I was doing to be Art in any sense of the word! To me, it was just…who I was. I was young, hadn’t had a lot of experience or knowledge of the art world. Artists were these amazing, untouchable creatures, almost God-like in their inaccessibility. They were everything I was not.

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It wasn’t until many years later when Fenton Bailey, then part of the club scene as a member of the electro-pop duo The Fabulous Pop Tarts, told me of a group called The Situationists, a group of anti-authoritarian social revolutionaries made up of avant-garde artists, intellectuals and political theorists, active from its formation in 1957 to its dissolution in 1972. As similar as The Situationists were to the club kids, its a wonder I had never heard of them. It was Fenton who pointed out our similarities and that what the club kids were doing was in fact a form of performance art. We were satirizing America’s notion of fame and consumer culture, while at the same time celebrating it. It’s a formula Fenton would later on make the foundation of his successful production company, World of Wonder — arguably yet another example of Warhol’s far-reaching influence.

7) I’ve read that you’re sober now and that part of your parole was an early curfew. Have you experienced or participated in New York City nightlife since you’ve been out of prison? Michael Musto famously accused you of destroying nightlife by giving the Giuliani administration an excuse to crack down. What are your thoughts on nightlife in 2015? What do you recognize as the same as it was, what’s different?

Although my curfew has been lifted slightly, and I have been to a few clubs here and there, I haven’t gone out enough to be much of an expert. I know the popular consensus is that Clubland isn’t what it used to be. Well, it shouldn’t be what it used to be! If it was, that would mean nothing has changed, and that’s never a good thing. Whether it’s better or worse now, is another question entirely. I suppose in some ways its better and worse, depending on what you’re expecting from nightlife. If you’re looking to score ecstasy and Special K at a nightclub, you’ll probably think it’s worse. If you’re the kind of person who likes going out and having a couple of drinks, dancing and not being having to worry about stepping over people who are laying comatose on the dance floor, then this new Clubland is probably a good thing.