Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell, ed. Rebecca Epstein

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by the Vincent Price Art Museum (at East Los Angeles College) and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press (here), in conjunction with a museum exhibition of the same name (here, September 16, 2017-February 10, 2018). Hardcover, 240 pages, with 171 black and white and color reproductions/illustrations. Includes essays by Rebecca Epstein, Sybil Venegas, Mei Valenzuela, Christopher A. Velasco, Deborah Cullen, Amelia Jones, James Estrella, Tracy M. Zuniga, Stephanie Snider, and Macarena Gomez-Barris, and forewords by Pilar Tompkins Rivas and Chon A. Noriega. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the past decade, the overt categorizations of identity politics have become much more insistently visible in the art world, a trend leading to the making of lists and the counting of subgroups that is gathering momentum.

On one hand, by bringing whole groups of artists to the forefront who have previously languished in the margins largely because the art world didn’t understand or value their contributions, we can now begin to weave together a much more comprehensive and informative tapestry of perspectives, realities, and lives than the one created by the straight white male artists of the past. This increased inclusiveness, attention, and awareness is long overdue and feels powerfully transformative, as it upends established modes of seeing and thinking and challenges us to actively reevaluate what we think we know about the past.

But on the other hand, constantly putting artists into buckets based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, and any number of other labels risks overlooking the broader and more universal impulses in their art. If we are forced to see their insights and innovations as wholly compartmentalized and defined by these modifiers, we may reduce the number of viewers who feel the art can (and should) speak to them, creating wider divisions and separations of experience rather than closing the gaps of collective understanding.

The Los Angeles-based photographer Laura Aguilar spent a lifetime (she died earlier this year) wrestling with the long list of categories that were used to define her. She was a woman, she was a brown skinned Chicana with deep Mexican/American roots, she was a lesbian, she was large-bodied/obese, she had dyslexia (a learning disability which diminished her ability to read), she suffered from depression, she was often poor, and she was a self-taught artist. As the complex combination of these many individual characteristics, for much of her working life, she represented everything the fancified art world wasn’t interested in, and as a result, was largely overlooked.

This scholarly retrospective catalog (and the traveling exhibition that it supports) is an overdue corrective to that wholesale dismissal. It represents a robust institutional reassessment of Aguilar’s entire career, providing a fresh and vital perspective on a photographer we should have been paying more attention to decades ago. It is also a signal that times are slowly changing, and many of those that have been continuously underrepresented in previous dialogues are now being deservingly accepted and reconsidered.

The series of projects Aguilar is perhaps most known for were made in the mid 1990s. Building on the long photographic history of the female nude in nature, Aguilar posed herself in rocky desert areas, scraggly California forests, and in the tumbling fall of dry river beds. And while these black and white images have obvious aesthetic echoes that go all the way back to the formal Modernism of Edward Weston, her pictures are more emotionally connected to the female photographers of the 1970s (particularly Judy Dater), who were actively reclaiming the nude from the gaze of the male photographers and making images that showed women on their own terms.

Aguilar was a large-bodied woman, and her everyday bulkiness was a radical departure from the kinds of models used by earlier photographers. Given the body shaming and societal stereotypes widely associated with obesity, Aguilar’s self-portraits were quietly revolutionary – she was boldly taking the risk of putting herself in the frame, knowing full well that the images didn’t fit inside society’s traditional definitions of beauty. But in the face of this rejection and alienation, she created a series of photographs that embrace her own vulnerability and resonate with the possibilities of self acceptance. Aguilar seems to have found a safe place in nature, where she could create space for herself on her own terms and where her identity as a large bodied woman wasn’t constantly demeaned. Her controlled compositions use her curves to artfully mimic stones, massive boulders, and pools of water, her body fitting in easily and naturally with her surroundings. Aguilar’s pictures are filled with the spirit of liberation and freedom, their beauty firmly grounded in an honest sense of belonging. And in the context of the wider history of the medium, these pictures actively extend the ways the female form can be represented, breaking down the previous limitations of the body shapes that could be the subject matter of such sensitive artistic expression.

Coming to terms with her body was clearly an ongoing struggle for Aguilar, and while the Nature Self-Portraits (and the subsequent studies of Stillness and Motion) were evidence of her increasing self confidence and self acceptance, her earlier works show her taking smaller incremental risks and exploring alternate approaches to the nudity of herself and others, and these experiments clearly act as the building blocks for what would ultimately come later. Her 1989 image In Sandy’s Room was a starting point. Sitting naked with a drink in her hand facing the cooling breeze of a fan, Aguilar bared herself for the first time, reaching for an uneasy sense of relaxation with her own body. Studio images in the next few years found her experimenting with the pared down forms of her hips, breasts, and belly, and just as John Coplans had used his own nudity to take a hard look at male aging a few years earlier, Aguilar examined herself with unflinching directness. At roughly the same time (the early 1990s), she also worked on her nuanced Clothed/Unclothed series, taking paired images of subjects (including herself) and exploring how nakedness influenced subtle feelings of empowerment and vulnerability.

But Aguilar wasn’t just making photographs that tried to capture the realities of her body and its complex relationship to her identity; she was also making work that thoughtfully examined her life as a Chicana and a lesbian, and her struggles as an artist. Her Latina Lesbians series gave voice and visibility to this overlooked community of women (just like Zanele Muholi’s portraits have done for the South African lesbian community more recently), pairing portraits of the women with their own hand written confessions. Her How Mexican is Mexican series used a similar approach to get Chicana women to tell their stories, each image decorated not only with text but with intricate hand drawn borders that further enhance the portraits. Both projects were rooted in the acts of listening and seeing, of paying attention to those (like herself) who had been marginalized.

A few years later (and right after the violence of the Rodney King riots), Aguilar returned to the LA lesbian community with her Plush Pony series, making group portraits of the regulars at the working class lesbian bar; these images both celebrated the closeness of the supportive and accepting environment but also had a undercurrent of persistent unease, Aguilar’s personal despair and hopelessness at the broader circumstances of the times coming through subtly in the pictures. This unsettled tone continued in images she made of cemeteries (in Mexico and elsewhere), the statues and gravestones not entirely at peace.

Aguilar’s mounting frustrations with her position in society and the plight of those like her came through even more strongly in a handful of other works she made in the early 1990s. Three Eagles Flying is a powerful triptych made in 1990, where the nude Aguilar is flanked by the American and Mexican flags; she stands between them tied in thick rope, her head and torso wrapped in the two national symbols, choked and bound by the two countries that represent her conflicted dual existence. In her series Will Work For, she turned her attention to the challenges she faced as an artist, from her lack of health insurance to working for “axcess” (the spelling error coming from her dyslexia) to the gallery system. Her set of four images Don’t Tell Her Art Can’t Hurt (from 1993) pushed these ideas further, the progression moving from believing that art could free her, to finding out that the art world was effectively closed, to ending up with a gun pointed into her mouth. In these and other works, Aguilar brought a sense of alienated resistance to her photographs, where the personal was transformed into the political, and the outsider was confronted with countless invisible barriers.

This rich retrospective catalog will undoubtedly become required reference for those wishing to research (and understand) the alternate artistic viewpoints coming from marginalized women of color; the volume certainly belongs on the short list of superlative photography catalogs recently published. Aguilar’s career is filled with the constant internal battle between otherness and self-acceptance, and that persistent tension in her identity led her to make more significant photographic projects than most of us realize. Instead of being lost in the conflicting details of the categories that were used to box her in, Aguilar looked closer at herself and her nearby communities, seeing possibilities rather than obstacles. In the end, this catalog feels both impressively triumphant and a bit disconcertingly sad. Here was a photographer of depth and talent who we largely failed to recognize during her life and who only now is starting to receive the accolades and attention she deserved. Hopefully, we will be smart enough to absorb the many lessons found in her life and work, so that her photographs can provide durable inspiration to the next generation.

Collector’s POV: Laura Aguilar did at one point show with Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects (here) but that relationship doesn’t seem to be active, and any other gallery relationships are unclear. In the auction rooms, her work has had little secondary market history.

Read more about: Laura Aguilar, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, Vincent Price Art Museum

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