Essays

Why Be Ugly When U Can Be Beautiful?

An Mark Aguhar by Evan (photo courtesy the author)
A photo of Mark Aguhar by the artist (photo courtesy the author)

AUSTIN, Texas — In 2013, the artist Jack Pierson wrote for Artforum that, “Art is supposed to endure, to be ultimately immortal. For me, in order to create,” he explains, “I had to let go of the idea of immortality … Photography is a system of ghosts: The photograph is never the thing itself, and that thing in its actual form is certainly not eternal. The photograph may be actually better than what it depicts, which is why I love and despise it. In contrast, for me, to paint is to grab at eternity — sort of like deciding to have a kid. Photography is homosexual and painting is heterosexual, which is not to say its finest practitioners may or may not have been either one of these.”

I’ve never known Jack to be a romantic, but his work tells a completely different story, and his comments couldn’t resonate any more beautifully here. Painting is a kind of placeholder for the entirety of art and art history — even human history — and artist Mark Aguhar, whether through watercolor or eye shadow — painted to grab at eternity, to snatch it. She was a genderqueer pioneer who was Tumblr famous before the term was ever born, and the images and video of her that live on continue to queer eternity itself. She took her own life in Chicago on March 12, 2012. Today is the anniversary of her death.

I met Mark for the first time in Houston, where we both grew up. I was visiting from Boston, and she was working for the Menil Collection before moving to Chicago for her grad work at UIC. I recognized her from Tumblr, where we’d interacted for years, and we chatted briefly before she was swept away by Bill Arning. He has always been incredible at spotting greatness before anybody else.

Mark’s Tumblr blog, Call Out Queen, later named BLOGGING FOR BROWN GIRLS, was a black hole of beauty, rage, and gender rebellion. It was a force that others orbited around before being ultimately engulfed by its presence. As a large, brown femme queen, often donning hair extensions and lip gloss with high heels or combat boots, simply her existence in the world was a confrontation and questioning of white male hegemony. She was an incredible painter and draftswoman, and frequently illustrated gay boys in their underwear and made figurative, patterned collages of sodomy and sex. When inspired harnesses started popping up in Comme des Garçons and high fasion collections, we all knew Mark had done it first.

I seemed to find more ways into Mark’s life than she did mine, a fact I’ve been making up for ever since. For a time she kept a black-and-white pinup of me on the back of her yellow studio door, naked in the dunes on Fire Island, a life-size document of my first time there. My belly hung over my pubes in the sunlight, casting shade on the sand and grass around me. Mark would pose in front and take selfies for Tumblr, sporting her belly and bare ass and the occasional Barbie-toe. Two thick, brown queens with guts and tree trunk calves. WHY BE UGLY WHEN U CAN BE BEAUTIFUL?

She would later surprise me in Chicago, wearing a rope harness at Ivan Lozano and Steven Frost’s thesis show, with a pocket-sized portrait of me on Fire Island wearing a pair of pumps I’d found at a friend’s beach rental. They had been rendered instead as Mark’s own pink heels, given to her by a friend named Juana. For years I felt certain the island was calling for Mark, the way the dune grass hisses like it’s whispering a name.

I had hoped that she would join me there one summer. She’d gotten a tattoo of a sigil, drawn for her by Elijah Burgher, who’d drafted several in Cherry Grove the August before and who kept a photo of her in his dining-room-turned-studio on the beach that summer. It seemed as if the island and universe were starting to pay attention to her the way we all had: intently and with a fundamental understanding that she was somehow more free than us, capable of a strange, rare beauty we were slow or unable to mimic ourselves. Native Americans speak of “two-spirit” people, honored for having the spirit of a man and the spirit of a woman, and seen as more spiritually gifted than either. And, with Mark, you felt it.

She was radical and brown and body-positive and Other and nameless and above gender and a goddess — not in the same way that you and I as queers are goddesses, but in the spiritual sense that she is worthy of our collective adulation because of her unwavering beauty in the face of suffering.

However powerful, our interactions were too few and far between … far from how I would describe them now. Her portrait sits in my library next to a keepsake vial of Cherry Grove sand — the closest I can ever get her to the earth of that place.

I remember feeling angry. Mark talked a lot about rage, but she always put it in the right place. I was unclear exactly where to direct it. Transphobic culture? Fatphobia? White males? At Mark herself? Rather than letting go of the idea of immortality, she clasped it tightly … tighter than a sew-in weave, tighter than we were prepared for. Mark is “supposed to endure, to be ultimately immortal,” not because she was beautiful or memorable, or because we missed the opportunity to acknowledge that immortality while she was here, but because she still is — because she grabbed at eternity. I KNOW I’M BEYOND YOU, she said. DEAL WITH IT.

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