Mark Aguhar sits, with a sullen look on their face, draped in a pink sheet-come-dress and sitting in a patch of faux “snow” created out of scraps of what appears to be white paper. This image of Mark encapsulates, succinctly, so many theories about the performativity of (queer) affect. Mark’s look, which is funny, sad and moving all at once, is caught somewhere between despair and tantrum. This image reminds us how affects are contagious—how, as Sara Ahmed suggests, your feelings reproduce themselves in others. It reminds us of the ways in which naming bad feelings can produce other kinds of feelings—feelings of recognition, feelings of catharsis, bittersweet feelings. Finally, it reminds us that there is something courageous in saying how you feel and meaning it.
It was because of works like these that Mark Aguhar was so beloved to so many. Since Mark passed in March, Chicago’s queer communities have been missing Mark, remembering Mark and paying tribute to Mark. The Dragon is the Frame, a group exhibition at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Gallery 400, is the culmination of an immense outpouring of love, grief and respect from some of the people Mark touched so profoundly. The show, which brings together twenty-seven artists as well as a selection of Mark’s own work, is both a celebration of Mark’s life and a show about the ways in which Mark’s voice was a vital part of the shared ideas that queer communities need to sustain themselves.
As Mark wrote in their artist statement: “Mark Aguhar’s work is a continuous exploration of queer expression and what it means to have grown up gay on the internet.” Though Mark’s tumblr, calloutqueen, chronicles the ways in which they were vulnerable to the more nefarious and abusive factions of Internet culture, Mark’s art also reveals the ways in which the Internet enables spaces for shared languages and jokes, and for coping with multiple forms of oppression. This is most apparent in Mark’s text-based works. The work Brown Femme Love, for example, consists of colorful painted letters that read “LOL, REVERSE RACISM.” Utilizing the casual-ness of Internet speak, Mark reminds us that flippancy can be biting, even rageful.
Mark Aguhar, Making Looks, 2011.
These text-based works function both as beautiful handmade traces of Mark’s inner thoughts and feelings and as meme-like statements. A work titled Not You (Power Circle) reads “Who is Worth my Love, my Strength & my Rage?” The viewer is forced to confront this statement for themselves, and wonder what their own answer might be. A work from Mark’s Making Looks series reads “I’d Rather be Beautiful Than Male.” These words, embossed in glitter, evoke the ways in which patriarchal culture rejects and diminishes the overtly female, feminine or femmy. The other works in this series are a group of Mark’s outfits that embody the gallery with their own indelible personalities. From the ragged and dowdy to the fabulous, Mark celebrated them all.
Mark also created small, humorous drawings, many of which are like pages torn from naughty illuminated manuscripts, graphically depicting gay sexual encounters. Others are of Mark’s friends, one encapsulating “transy girlfriend looks” in a series of drawings that are reminiscent of prototype sketches for a new fashion collection, another celebrating “lesbian hairstyles.”
Aside from Mark’s works, one of the most moving works in the show is a sound installation by Latham Owen Zearfoss. In the middle of the room a disco ball hangs low and sparkles in the red and green lights that illuminate it. Playing in the room is a soundtrack of Mark’s friends remembering Mark on the dancefloor, Mark’s energy, Mark’s glamor. Zearfoss envelops us in these memories, which are generously imparted gifts from those who knew Mark to those who did not. At one poignant moment, one of these disembodied voices remembers Mark flipping their hair in people’s faces. With a penetrating fondness, the voice recalls: “She’s smiling. She says, I’m sorry…I say, you’re not really sorry.” The voice brims with subtext: Mark was not sorry. Mark was fierce and, mostly, Mark was angry. Mark flipped their hair and used flippant language and flippant gestures to cope. As Mark wrote on their website: "It’s that thing where the only way to cope with the reality of your situation is to pretend it doesn’t exist; because flippancy is a privilege you don’t own but you’re going to pretend you do anyway."
Nina Barnett’s She, the Phoenix is a triangle of gold leaf affixed to a corner of the gallery. It’s a work that formally plays with placement and material—it literally shrinks into a corner yet its gold garishness means it can never fully become a wallflower. Perhaps Barnett is evoking a feeling that Mark often struggled with—the desire to be their self, to have an image, to stand out, coupled with the desire to be safe, to be left alone, to be allowed to be.
The Dragon is the Frame, 2012 (installation view), Foreground: Mark Aguhar, Making Looks no. 1, 2011. Fabric. Background left: Section of drawings by Mark Aguhar, 2011. Background right: Tim Nichodemus, Access Knotting, 2012, Oil on canvas, Mark Kent, Untitled, 2012, Acrylic on canvas, 33 x 29 in., Tiffany Funk, mark, 2012, Video, 13:27 min. loop (still); Courtesy of Gallery 400. Photo by Tom Van Eynde.
Kasia Houlihan has assembled her own fascinating history of crowd-sourced book dedications in the work To…To… . These range from the prosaic and regular, with dedications like, “to my family” and “For Joan, Completely” to the weird and wonderful, with phrases like “To the first worm that knawed my flesh.” This is an archive of sentimental flourishes, of emotional outbursts and humorous asides that make the more “serious” content of the books they introduce possible. It is an archive of relationships that matter, an archive of love. The last inscription, from the author herself, reads, “For my friend Mark, who is missed.”
(Image on top: The final post from the Artist on their tumblr. Mark Aguhar, Untitled, 2012)