Sunday, July 30, 2006

AL WALZ: Powerful Gay Art Now on Display in North Park


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

For over a year, a plucky little gallery called the Arts & Entertainment Center has nestled in a storefront at 3026 University Avenue, surrounded by hole-in-the-wall diners, coffee shops, hardware stores, optometry offices and the like. Enter the space, however, and it blossoms into not only a full-fledged art gallery but, behind it and to your right, a performance space called Peacock Alley. The gallery is open from 1 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and features some quite stunning, provocative shows — including the one that’s running now, themed to tie in to the LGBT [Queer] Pride events, “Gay Seduction.”

Though nine artists are featured in “Gay Seduction” — including Mark O’Keefe, interviewed in the February 2006 Zenger’s, as well as Suzy Koenigs, Arturo Mestizo, Tom Adkins, David Ezzidine, Keith Anderson, Francisco Villa and Michael McKeon — the artist whose work stood out at the opening reception July 15 was Al Walz. Partly that was because his pieces were by far the most sexually explicit in the show — ranging from a collage called “Nice Dick” that featured photos of naked men cut down to just their torsos and cocks to a strongly themed work depicting a glory hole with authentic-looking men’s room graffiti surrounding it.

But beyond the sex there was an unflinching honesty about Walz’s works, a willingness to confront the darker sides of the Gay male experience, that made it virtually impossible to turn away from them. Meeting him at the Hillcrest apartment he shares with his partner — a large, roomy space tastefully furnished with antiques, sculptures and a comfortable couch — it was hard to reconcile the earnest young man with the art on display at the Arts & Entertainment Center.

It soon became apparent that today’s Al Walz is quite a different person from the one who created those pieces. He’s quieter, more thoughtful, less sex-obsessed and interested in exploring other media besides visual arts. He’s working on a novel and also writing, singing and recording his own songs. In a corner of his room there was a painting he was working on — in a similar medium to the Arts & Entertainment works but with a very different feel — celebrating his family, as a 45th anniversary present for his parents. (Walz said he wasn’t entirely satisfied with it but was going to give it to them anyway.)

To contact the Arts & Entertainment Center, please call (619) 260-1731 or visit their Web site at

Zenger’s: Why don’t we start with a little of your background and how you got into art?

Al Walz: I’m from the East Coast, Pennsylvania. I grew up in a very small town called North East, two words. Everyone always asks us, “Where’s North East?” It’s the name of the town. It’s in northwest Pennsylvania, which is kind of odd, right on Lake Erie. I came from a very conservative family, middle-class parents, Presbyterian, went to church every Sunday, good upbringing.

I’ve always been a creative type of artist, since I started drawing at the age of six or seven or whatever. I took art classes in high school, and after college I felt I needed to break out of the town, sort of get away. I knew I was homosexual right away, and that I needed to come out for myself. So I moved to Orlando, Florida, came out there and did a bunch of odd jobs.

That’s where the type of art that I’ve been doing now originated, in which I’ve been using styrofoam for the medium. I was working at Blockbuster Video at the time, and the inserts for the cover boxes of the videos were styrofoam pieces. We would throw them all out, and since I was pro-environment at the time I thought I should try to reuse them instead of throwing them away. So I told everyone at the store, “I’m going to take these home and do something with them artistically creative, “ and everyone said, “Oh, no, you’re not going to do anything.”

I would take these big bags of small pieces of Styrofoam, the size of a VHS tape box, home. My first thought was to sculpt them into something. I was trying to glue them together and maybe make towers. Then I started gluing them together four by four, or maybe six by four, and making a big canvas-like surface on which I could just paint on, or do collages or whatever. I do a lot of collage and acrylic painting, and that’s how it all evolved.

It was at a time when I was feeling very low about being Gay. The pieces you saw that are hanging in that art show, the “Die, Fag!,” the pictures of all the nude men, and the other one with the blood, are kind of the first three I did. They were a series, and they got me through a lot of hard times. It was very therapeutic.

The “Die, Fag!” originated because I had thought that I might want to be a model at one point. Those were actually head shots of me on that painting. I never did anything with them. I’s spent hundreds of dollars to get them taken, and I was depressed about that. I didn’t know where I was going to go in my life, and how I was going to turn out. So I put them on the styrofoam.

At the time I hated being Gay, and I hated that we were not equals. I hated that I spent all my time looking for sex. I just felt like I was going nowhere, but this art piece came out of it. It’s one of the pieces that I’m most proud of, the first one I did, “Die, Fag!,” just because I knew that if people thought a straight person did it, everyone would be up in arms about it. But once they know it’s a Gay person, I think it takes it to a different level for them.

I think as Gay men, and homosexuals in general, we all went through a period where we didn’t want to be Gay, and we repressed it. I repressed it in college. I knew it was going to be a hard life. I wasn’t ready for that. Being an artist and a homosexual are both very hard routes to go by in life, to get over and make something out of yourself. It’s hard enough to be an artist, to live and survive, and then I knew I had to come out, too, to be true to yourself. So that piece was very cathartic.

The other two that go with it came about because I felt like there was a way that we all sort of evolve as homosexuals. Not everybody does this, but a lot of us do. First we’re the homosexual in hiding. Obviously we like dick, we like cock, and we look at nude pictures, whether we’re doing it in privacy and nobody knows about it, or whatever. That’s what we are, and that’s what we’re supposed to be. That’s why we’re homosexuals: because we like the same sex.

Then maybe we get to a point where we’re screwing around a lot, maybe going out too much and getting into drugs. We don’t really like ourselves for that, even though we continue to do it to escape. It’s all about escape. The sex is about escape, the drugs are about escape, and so that’s the second point in that painting. First you see the dicks, and then you see the self-hating.

Then it gets to the point where for some people — and I’m not saying all homosexuals go through this — but the third one is supposed to be suicide. It’s blood against a wall, and somebody sticking a gun in their mouth and killing himself. I think a lot of homosexuals have gone this route. It’s sad to say, but we’re still in a country that doesn’t take us seriously as equals. Many Gay people are still growing up in these small towns in America, and their parents are turning their backs on them. I feel sorry for these young men.

Personally, I’ve been lucky. My parents have been very accepting. My family is very accepting. But still I had thoughts of suicide. I don’t know if a lot of people did. I didn’t go that route, but that’s the explanation there for those three paintings right there, how that all evolved.

Zenger’s: I must say that when I saw Mark O’Keefe, whom I’d previously interviewed for the magazine, he and I were actually joking, saying, “Of course, we’re looking at the dick pictures first.”

Walz: Right, right. You see? It’s all about the dick first! But, yeah, I was trying to push buttons a little bit. I knew that they were going to be a little bit controversial, and maybe even a little shocking. I never even thought I’d ever get to hang them up in an art gallery, and when I approached that gallery, I had actually heard from another guy who was doing a show at the Center. First I tried to get my art into the Center, and the guy who was running that show said no, they wouldn’t work for there, but he recommended me to go to the Arts and Entertainment gallery. I didn’t even know if he was going to put them up, but I went there that Saturday, and he had them up. I was glad. I was very excited to see them.

It’s something I think people need to see. I mean, as homosexuals we don’t really talk about that. We cover it up. We try to pretend we’re happy or whatever, but I know there’s a part of us that’s not. Maybe not everybody feels this way, but I think because I grew up in a small town of 10,000 people in northwest Pennsylvania in the 1980’s, I was never prepared to come out. I never thought I was going to if I continued to live there. It wasn’t really spoken about. I knew people who were Gay in my high school, but we just didn’t talk about it, or it wasn’t a big thing.

I just wanted to take my art to a new level and I wanted to speak up for Gays. I think I’m sort of a Gay activist, politically aware, and I’m strongly for equal rights and the whole Gay marriage movement. I knew that this art was going to be a little bit controversial, but at the same time I think it’s something that a lot of people need to see, or should see. Not all my art is that way. I have some that are more abstract. I have a couple of other ones that are kind of political. But that’s pretty much how it’s evolved.

Zenger’s: Where did the “Nice Dick” pictures come from?

Walz: Playgirl magazines or other porn magazines, mostly Playgirl at the time, I think. I don’t remember if they were mine or a friend of mine was throwing them out. I don’t know if you noticed, but there was a conscious effort not to put their faces on, not just for the fact that I didn’t want to show who they were, but I feel that as Gay men, we don’t concentrate on what they look like. We concentrate on bodies and dicks. We’re very visual as a culture, and it’s all about the sex, and we don’t really care what the person looks like. We care if he’s got a nice ass or a big dick. So that was the reason for my conscious effort just to show naked bodies and dicks.

Zenger’s: What was the inspiration behind the glory hole piece?

Walz: The glory hole piece was another thing that had never been shown before in art — or at least I’d never seen one. I wanted to try to do something new, and I thought, “Wow, that’s kind of artistic.” When you see a glory hole, and when you go into a bathroom, and there’s writing all over the walls, it’s sort of an artistic thing.

I had never seen anyone do a glory hole for an art piece, so I thought, “Why not?” I thought that would be interesting, maybe a little provocative, shocking, but also something that people had never seen yet in art. And why not? That’s my whole theory, I suppose.

I did the same thing with the piece called “Religion,” in the window. As Gay men, our religion seems to be either dicks or asses, and I think I was trying to push the button there, too, with the cross shape and the naked body. I’m not trying to say I’m against the religious community in any way. I’m just trying to show that everyone’s got their own religion; and to some Gay men — or to me at the time — my religion was sex.

Zenger’s: You said that the pieces in the Arts and Entertainment show represent some of your earliest work. How would you say you’ve evolved as an artist since then?

Walz: I’ve always tried to do different media. I’m not always just a painter. I’m a writer, too. I’m a singer/performer. I’m actually getting back to painting on styrofoam now, but I’d like to pursue more of a “nice” approach, maybe not so shocking or daring — but still thought-provoking. I have a song out called “Gay Cliché.” I have a demo of it, which I was very proud that I made, and I sang that last year on, or one of the Gay stations that has a talk show in the afternoon.

I’m always trying to do something to get people to think a little bit more about out community. I’ve always been bothered about the whole breakdown of the community, about the different levels — the Bears, the circuit queens, etc. Even in our community there’s no community. We’re kind of hypocritical when we say we want equal rights, but we don’t even accept each other sometimes. I comment on the farce in my song, “Gay Cliché,” which is sort of poking fun at the community, and that this is what we’re all about: “Where is the next circuit party at?” Or looking good, or working out.

Zenger’s: When you say you want to comment on the Gay community, is your audience straight people or other Gay people or both?

Walz: Mostly geared towards the Gay community. If straight people get something out of it, great. More power to them. But as a Gay man, it’s what I know more about, and what I want to speak about as a Gay artist, the community and the things that have upset me in our community, good and bad, I suppose. I’m an advocate for safe sex, and I’m against crystal, the things that people stereotype us for. That’s not just what Gay people are. I hate that that’s what we’re stereotyped as somehow, sometimes.

Even on TV, in the media, like for instance Jack [on Will and Grace], or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, we’re not presented as typical Gay men who just lead their lives, and the only thing we’ve got that’s different about us is that we like other men. It doesn’t define who we are. We’re not all queeny, and we’re not all Transsexuals or drag queens or whatever. We don’t all listen to circuit music. But somehow that seems to be what the media have picked up upon to show or present us as, somehow, in the past, from what I’ve seen. Hopefully, there might be a turnaround sometime.

I think we had a great year in entertainment as far as we go, and I thought for once we were going to be taken seriously, with Brokeback Mountain being nominated, and TransAmerica, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was, like, the Year of the Gay in the Oscars. But then we still didn’t get it, which kind of makes me wonder. The picture of the year was still not given to us. I don’t know what that means. Who knows? Maybe people liked Crash better than Brokeback Mountain. You still have to think: was there a conspiracy?

I mean, you’ve got to believe that half the entertainment business is made up of Gays, so why are they not voting for us? Why aren’t they coming out? When that type of thing continues to happen and Gays in the entertainment industry stay in the closet, it doesn’t give us a strong, solid voice to say that we’re everywhere, and we’re just like you. We’re not going to break any ground until these people start coming out.

Zenger’s: So what are your plans for the future?

Walz: Continue to work on my art, try some new ways of voicing my opinion, getting it out there, getting people to think in a different way about Gays, about homosexuals, about life. Maybe take it away from homosexuality for a while. I’ve always thought that all the stuff I’ve done — and people have told me — is very honest work. It’s all truth. Yet people just don’t think about these things.

I’d like for people to be more honest with themselves, and in their lives, and just quit with all the other bullshit that goes on in their heads. I would love to continue to show people that they don’t have to be in hiding so much, and maybe break ground there and get people to accept each other as whatever we are.