CHICAGO — Edie Fake is a radical punk queer feminist activist. He is currently “at large” in Chicago. Before that, he was driving around the country in a yellow school bus doing the gay performance “Fingers.” At the opening of his solo exhibition Memory Palaces at Thomas Robertello, he told me that he grew up somewhere outside of Chicago, and when he left town he thought his relationship with the Windy City was over for good. But much to his surprise, he returned. Chicago is like that. Many born-and-bred Chicagoans swear they’ll leave, and they do — for a time, anyway. Chicago has a way of bringing its queers back to the city for reasons unbeknownst to them. The theme of Fake’s show offers us a clue as to why.
Fake reflects on Chicago’s queer history both through his own personal experiences of friends who passed away, and through the spaces and places that have either disappeared, still remain, or never existed at all, yet still host the politicized queer ghosts and spirits of its occupants. This body of 15 drawings took Fake one year to produce. All are dated 2012 and made rather meticulously, almost scientifically, from the same materials — ballpoint pen, ink, and gouache on paper. Fake’s hyper-geometric patterning looks like a Southwestern mosaic, the lo-fi aesthetic of a 1980s Nintendo video game, and a touch of Magic Eye. Among Chicago artists, it’s highly recognizable — a mesmerizing meshing of geometrically inclined lines that seem handspun from a mind with an impeccable precision for detail. The drawings appear genderless and are located somewhere in a space outside of normative time structures.
Of the 15 drawings, ten of them are rooted in the city’s queer history. “Killer Dyke” and “Blazing Star” refer to twin lesbian newspapers of the 1970s. Killer Dyke was a 1971 radical feminist newspaper published out of Northeastern Illinois University; Blazing Star refers to the newspaper and group that were part of the mid-1970s Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU). In Fake’s “Killer Dyke,” a yellow doorway with the word “DYKE” emblazoned at the top of it and the squiggly lettering of “KILLER DYKE” painted on the window blend into the hyper-patterned facade; though not purporting to be an actual representation of what this space was, Fake’s contemporary reenvisioning of it draws energy from the past, pays homage in the present, and looks forward to future radical queer spaces and publications.
As such, each piece in this exhibition acts as its own intricate study of past, present, and future in one image, drawing viewers into both the fantastical and actual history of the space. Fake travels from bathhouses to gay bars to clubs to feminist clinics to punk venues and theaters until he reaches completely imaginary places, such as the one depicted in “Untitled Buildings (Shapes),” a yellow, orange, green, and red facade with a sign that includes a wishbone, key, anal beads, and random amorphous shapes.
The other five pieces in the show are tributes to friends of the artist who passed away in the last two years. Queer Chicagoan Mark Aguhar, aka Call Out Queen, was a fierce, femme-identified artist of color whose Tumblr presence and artwork commented on and called out the mainstream media’s glossy glorification of the gay white male body, among other problematic representations. Only months away from receiving her MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), Aguhar decided to take her own life. The tightly knit Chicago queer art community responded with a powerful memorial exhibition, The Dragon is the Frame, at UIC and a memorial ceremony at local art space Roots & Culture. Fake’s “Gateway (for Mark Aguhar) (Palace Door – calloutqueen)” is a magnetic, mesmerizing, three-dimensional-seeming yet two-dimensional in reality drawing of cubes, slashes, diamonds, stacked boxes, and hook-like jags that lead the eye to a singular closed door. Like looking too long at a Magic Eye drawing, it’s impossible not to get lost in the image. The experience is also similar to the way one can travel down the rabbit hole of Aguhar’s Tumblr, which still lives online. Fake’s drawing marks the fact that Aguhar has traveled to the other side; it is Fake’s vision of Aguhar’s passage from the world of the living to the world of spirit.
Fake also pays tribute to four other fallen, creative queer heroes. Nicolas Djandji, a 24-year-old aspiring curator who had been living and working in New York City, was riding home one evening when he was struck and killed at an intersection in Brooklyn only blocks away from his home. For him, Fake draws towering blue pillars with triangular tips up top that point into a black sky background. A folded and jagged yellow accordion-like shape leads the way to a portal door covered in pink diamonds and black-and-white triangles, outlined with red, black, and green lines.
The three other tribute drawings are for publisher, cartoonist and comics historian Dylan Williams, who died of cancer; artist Flo McGarrell, who was killed in the Haitian earthquake of 2010; and pioneering activist, video/performance artist, writer, and artist Dara Greenwald, whose battle with cancer ended last year. Fake pays respect to these creative people whose spirits live on through our memory of them. Memory Palaces is a powerful, comprehensive tribute to Chicago queer history. If there’s one flaw, it’s that, at times, the drawings may begin to look repetitive. But much like the same types of faces one sees over and over again regardless of what queer establishment they happen to arrive at, there is a comfort in sameness.
Edie Fake: Memory Palaces continues at Thomas Robertello Gallery (27 N Morgan Street, Chicago) through February 16.