As a straight man who often depicts gay life, what would you say if someone would accuse you of cultural appropriation or of carpetbagging?

As a straight man who often depicts gay life, what would you say if someone would accuse you of cultural appropriation or of carpetbagging?

I suppose that the most obvious and easiest defense is to mention that I’ve had male lovers before I became involved with my wife, who I’ve been in a monogamous relationship with for the last 27 years. However, I don’t think that adequately explains or provides enough of a reason why I make art oriented towards a queer audience.

I’m a misfit. I’ve never really fit in to one group or one set of people. I’ve never even been accepted completely into any social setting in any of my identities. I have many identities. One identity is a straight white male Jew. Another identity is an artist and an outsider. In the past, I used to identify as a bisexual man. But, none of these identities sum up who I am and I don’t really identify with any of them.   In fact, even my family has had problems labeling me and accepting me for who I am. 

When I was 13 years old I came home from Hebrew school one afternoon and my brother who had been sitting in the back of the bus dishing with a girl, said that she and most of my classmates referred to me as “Kenney Queer.” From that point on that was the nickname my older, not yet out of the closet gay brother, called me.

In my head, I often think of myself as “Kenney Queer.” And I think it has more to do with what I believe in and the causes I support that my behavior sexually or otherwise. I’m not sure if others would accept me saying that I’m queer. I suppose some people would be fair in saying that I’m carpetbagging or appropriating someone else’s culture. However, I do believe that the thousand or so collectors I have don’t feel that way.  I’m sure that many of my friends assumed that I’m in the closet or that I’m repressing my desires or that I’m misrepresenting myself. I make no effort at all to hide that I’m married to a woman. On Facebook, where I collect my collectors, it clearly says in my profile that I’m married to Valerie Kiszka, a woman. Often in conversation, such as with fellow artists who I talked on the phone occasionally, the first thing I do is reveal my relationship status to them to make sure that they understand who I am and that I’m not trying to misrepresent myself.

I think it might be useful to express or explain how I decided or settled on painting what I consider to be homoerotic and queer themes. It’s a long and complicated story and some of it can be explained by looking at the articles published about me in various newspapers and magazines, however, it goes back further than that.

I went to the high school art design in New York City and dropped out in my senior year 1982. In high school and after high school I was involved with and shared my bed with a wide variety of people. Most of my friends and the social set that I ran with were very open-minded artistic types and this was just before the AIDS epidemic blossomed in the early 80s. In fact, I think I’m pretty lucky to have tested negative for the virus. That only goes to discuss the possibility that I’m not segregated in terms of who I allow myself to be attracted to but it doesn’t really address what I’ve chosen to paint over the years.

In college and graduate school as an artist and studying to be an art historian one of the concepts that was pounded into my head and discussed ad infinitum in the classroom was the concept of the “male gaze.” When I was in my second graduate program studying for my MFA one of the things that I tried to do was make art that discussed gender issues and human rights I thought a lot of it was oriented towards feminism but I also make quite a few paintings in the Bay Area figurative style from old gay porno magazines and that got me into a little bit of trouble since I was going to graduate school in Cincinnati where the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit had just been censored in the contemporary arts Center there.

After graduate school and during my first teaching experiences at the University of Chicago and Texas A&M international University in Laredo I wasn’t sure what to paint and in terms of formal concerns I was very interested in painting things that have a lot of chiaroscuro and the human figure. The subject matter I settled on was to work from film stills and paint them rather gesturally. The film stills that had the most psychological impact and dealt with figures in light and shadow the most were images from film noir as well as other older films. I painted that subject matter for probably 5 to 10 years, possibly longer. When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area my paintings began to become more complex and ambitious. I began to make larger paintings based on photo shoots that I designed as well as formulated or collaged together types of images often dealing with what I thought was the hypocrisy of male-dominated culture. 

My paintings often looked like film noir or pulp fiction book covers but I was creating my own iconography and imagery to paint from. The majority of the paintings I made didn’t represent women until a female student confronted me during an art history lecture asking me why I didn’t paint women more. I explained to her that I felt it was kind of sexist of me to objectify women and she suggested that I should get over it and try to make paintings that express ideas that were important to me and so I began to pursue that line of inquiry in my art a little bit more in depth. At which point, the gallery in San Francisco that was representing me called Hang Gallery dropped me because the majority of the gallery workers found the art to be sexist and offensive. In a telephone conversation with the director of the gallery Michelle Townsend, she said that my work was just too “wry and perverted.”

Shortly after that, I was offered a show in Sacramento and even though I checked in with the gallery director to make sure that the work was appropriate for that and you I was asked to remove my art from that show as well. In a sort of pissed off moved to get some publicity for what I saw as injustice I emailed several newspapers and ended up getting several articles written about me that discussed what I thought of as censorship. The gallery in Sacramento called the Elliott Fouts gallery contacted me on seeing the articles in the Sacramento bee and asked to pick up the paintings and have a show with them at Elliott’s gallery.  The show was called “Hamlettes on Wry.”

For several years I addressed what I thought were themes having to do with sexuality and points of view which included images about male and female relationships as well as male to male relationships in an attempt to express ideas about equity and fairness as well as to continue to titillate my viewers. Interestingly enough, whenever I painted images of men especially overtly homoerotic themes the galleries in San Francisco and in Sacramento that represented me rejected those paintings and refused to show them. I still hadn’t moved towards painting men predominantly at this point, but I was getting pretty pissed off that I wasn’t able to show all of my work at the galleries that said that they were going to represent me. At that point, I decided to take all of the rejected works and put them on Etsy.com at super discounted prices just so that I wouldn’t have to live with these paintings anymore clogging up my painting racks and somehow psychologically free myself to paint more.  Since I began exhibiting and selling my work on Etsy.com I’ve stopped working with galleries, reduce the price point of most of my work to under $300 and have been able to make a living selling my art.

One of my closest friends, a man named David Braddy, who is also a floral designer. David and I are fast friends and I have always counted on him to critique my work.  His floral design business, of which I’m an avid patron, is very successful and he’s been a mentor to me.  David and his partner Gil, would gush over my male figures and David would often comment how much more successful and heroic my mail figures were than the female figures. I’ve always had an easier time painting men because I understand the figures more and I also don’t feel the need to make those figures fit in with stereotypes of beauty the way that I do painting females. When I would paint women, I actually had trouble representing them in a way that would appeal to a straight audience because of the conventions of beauty that restrict women. Tonal structure is washed out of female faces, noses are reduced in size and structure, and lips and eyes are over exaggerated in what I feel to be a kind of cartoon of feminine beauty.  I’ve always been much more comfortable painting men because I don’t feel the need to edit them in the way that I edited women when I painted.

David was particularly enamored with some of the paintings that I had left over from my graduate school. Half of my MFA thesis show was based on gay pornography and paintings of men. In the course of many discussions David began to try to influence or steer me towards painting men more and painting particularly gay themes since he felt that I was more sympathetic towards those ideals and they fit in more with my philosophical outlook. At the same time, I had painted a painting called “Shared Space” that literally went viral on Tumblr with thousands of shares and I thought it was really interesting that a painting of a fat man, who looked a bit like my body type, would be shared so much in gay men’s feeds. So, I painted a small oil of a bear in a cabbie hat that I found very attractive and gave it to David as a gift.

David had a party and at the party several of his friends kept trying to snatch the painting and take it with them because they liked it so much. This happened two or three times over the course of weeks and David actually had to lock the painting in his china cabinet so that as many guests didn’t keep trying to swipe the painting. He got such a big kick out of it that he suggested I make more paintings and put them on Etsy.com. One of the things that I wanted to was to paint men who are my age and my physical build and that became the subject matter of many of my first paintings that I can consider to be my homoerotic were queer body of work. I was surprised by how well these paintings were received and I was also surprised at how they made me feel about my own body and my own level of physical attractiveness. It had never dawned on me that as a middle-aged balding hairy man people could find me attractive and my painting images of bears it helped me to come to terms more with who I am and how I look.

Please visit my site to see more of my work.


  1. I really enjoyed this article and your work. Labels and identities are an interesting conundrum. Your work is wonderful and speaks to many things. THANKS!