Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell @Leslie-Lohman

JTF (just the facts): A total of 49 black-and-white and color photographic works, plus video works and other ephemera, hung against white walls in a series of five connected spaces and in the entry area on the main floor of the museum. (Installation shots below.)

The exhibition includes the following works:

  • 1 set of 12 gelatin silver prints, 1993
  • 1 cyanotype, 1981
  • 4 gelatin silver prints, 1984, 1989, 1990
  • 1 triptych of gelatin silver prints, 1990
  • 3 gelatin silver prints, 1993
  • 1 set of 3 gelatin silver prints, 1993
  • 1 Xerox collage, 1983
  • 6 gelatin silver prints with hand-written ink inscriptions, 1987, 1988, 1989
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1993
  • 1 vitrine with suitcase and ephemera
  • 9 gelatin silver prints (3 sets of 3) with hand-written ink inscriptions, 1990
  • 6 gelatin silver prints, 1992
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1989
  • 6 diptychs of gelatin silver prints, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1994
  • 1 vitrine with family photos, announcements, magazine clippings
  • 3 VHS videos, 6 minutes, 14 minutes, 5 minutes, 1993
  • 4 gelatin silver prints, 1983
  • 6 gelatin silver prints (2 sets of 3), 2000
  • 2 gelatin silver prints, 1999
  • 3 gelatin silver prints, 1999
  • 4 inkjet prints, 2006
  • 1 video, 17 minutes, 2007

Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell was originally organized by the Vincent Price Art Museum in collaboration with the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, and was guest curated by Sybil Venegas, independent art historian and curator and Professor Emerita of Chicana/o Studies at East Los Angeles College.

Comments/Context: Laura Aguilar died in 2018, just after the original version of this excellent retrospective exhibit closed at the Vincent Price Art Museum in Los Angeles, her hometown. It takes a while for exhibitions to circulate, and this one made stops in Miami and Chicago before finally arriving here in New York this spring. I spent time thinking about the 2018 catalog of the exhibition a few years ago (reviewed here), but being able to see her works in person, installed in a gallery space, changes and amplifies many of the reactions I had had to both the works themselves and to Aguilar as a person.

By almost every measure or categorization seemingly possible, Aguilar wasn’t what the art world was looking for in the 1980s. She was a woman (gender), she was Mexican-American (ethnicity), she was a lesbian (sexual orientation), she was poor (class), she was obese (body type), and she was disabled (fighting depression and auditory dyslexia). And so there is an inherent and intense personal tragedy embedded in Aguilar’s artistic story – here was a young woman who felt compelled to express herself through art (particularly photography), and yet was frustrated, marginalized, underappreciated, and ignored at nearly every turn, starting with her own family. Walking through this tightly edited, roughly chronological arrangement of her many projects, we see her responding to those forces in different ways, trying to find her own voice and to understand (and then communicate) what it meant to be who she was.

If you are willing to invest roughly 25 minutes in getting to know Aguilar, make a beeline for an unassuming video monitor that hosts a series of three videos she made in 1993 – while starting here might seem to be out of order in the progression of her career, the videos offer an intimate window into her personality like nothing else in the show. In each work, Aguilar talks directly to the camera with a minimum of fuss, bravely opening up her thoughts and emotions in a confessional mode of address. The first video finds Aguilar nude, talking about how she slowly became comfortable with her own body. She is a large, significantly overweight woman, and she speaks honestly about her struggles to accept herself, especially when naked. She thoughtfully acknowledges that the society around her didn’t approve of her body (and didn’t want her to be comfortable), and painfully, that she felt like she was supposed to feel shame about her appearance. But she kept forcing herself to look at her body, to frame it different ways photographically (as seen in the work hung at the exhibition’s entry), and ultimately she worked through the awkwardness with herself to find a sense of peace and safety with her own body. She talks through these issues with soft frankness and understated humility, in a way that made me all the more impressed with what she had overcome personally to make her nude photographs.

The next two videos turn even darker. In them, Aguilar first recounts her childhood struggle with auditory dyslexia, which made it difficult for her to speak and be understood by others (her disability is entirely unnoticeable in the videos), and left her with feelings of isolation and inadequacy. Since they couldn’t communicate with her easily, the people around her continually underestimated her, which pushed Aguilar to keep her feelings inside and to pull back from social interaction. When her mother and brother died in relatively quick succession, she felt even more alone, leading to bouts of feeling depressed, unworthy, and even suicidal. The last video finds Aguilar diving further into this darkness, holding a knife and talking through her pain and frustration, imagining the knife could cut away the hardship. Together, the three videos offer a quietly searing picture of a woman who has struggled mightily to make her way in the world and to build an identity and sense of self-esteem that could sustain her. A series of four large scale photographs (among the earliest in the show) of Aguilar holding a toy gun in her mouth surround the video station, and having spent time immersed in her forthright and sincere confessions, their power as artistic interpretations of a very real mindset hits home with haunting force.

With this personal emotional landscape as a backdrop, cycling back through Aguilar’s various artistic projects becomes much more resonant. To try to get her head around her own Chicana identity, she made images of families in Day of the Dead face makeup (watching TV or posing for a family photo in a coffin), and made portraits of Latina women (including herself) that were inscribed with personal stories of how they saw their own heritage and playfully gauged their degree of Mexican-American consciousness (“mild/medium/hot”) with hand drawn thermometers (the 1990 series was titled How Mexican is Mexican?)

Other projects worked to counterbalance lesbian stereotypes and make lesbian life more visible, first with her late 1980s Latina Lesbians series, where attentive portraits were paired with inscriptions filled with rich statements of identity. She followed these role models up with images of couples at the Plush Pony lesbian bar in 1992, where smiling, comfortable couples, friends, and community members were relaxed enough by Aguilar’s presence to be themselves. Still other efforts performatively highlighted the access challenges she faced in the art world, and explored clothing as an identifier, via paired images of families, groups, and couples of various ages, ethnicities, and sexual orientations both clothed and unclothed. Against the arc of her artistic career, each project can be seen as a different set of experiments, each wrestling with a facet of her own identity that she needed to claim or better understand.

Two singular self-portraits offer evidence that through this process of artistic discovery, Aguilar was becoming more comfortable with who she was, and who she was becoming. In a 1989 photograph titled “In Sandy’s Room”, a nude Aguilar stretches out on a chair directly in front of a fan, beating the heat with the window open and a drink in hand. A mood of relaxed acceptance fills the image, her large body not hidden or awkward, but restful and secure in her own skin. Her 1990 triptych “Three Eagles Flying” is decidedly more political, her nude body tied up with thick ropes and her head and torso alternately wrapped by the Mexican and American flags, which are then repeated as flanking symbols on either side of her figure. It’s a powerful visual statement about her split and often conflicted identity, and a surprisingly confident and aggressive one, given her traumas. The prints here are much smaller and more intimate than I might have envisioned, making the confrontation more close up and personal.

The same can be said for Aguilar’s nude landscapes (made between the mid 1990s and the mid 2000s), their small size forcing the viewer in tight. From the catalog reproductions, the formal echoes of her bulky body and the curves of rock formations, desert pools, and other natural forms feel elemental, but presented here with such intimacy, they feel more private than I had imagined. Given the backstory of her life, they also resonate more strongly with a new tone of self acceptance, her body now nestled into the land with a sense of ease, the desert welcoming her and affirming her rightful place with gentle beauty and grace. In an unexpected way, the nude landscapes are almost triumphant, a catharsis of the past and a reimagining of the future at least partially achieved.

One thing that I didn’t come away with from this smartly controlled and succinct edit of her work was that this was some kind of overly simple “vulnerability becomes strength” fairy tale. Far from it. Aguilar was indeed vulnerable, and she had to work extremely hard, against essentially all odds, to build both a life and an art career. The systematic progression and development of her work is evidence that this wasn’t an accident – she worked at her photography, and kept challenging herself at every turn, and it took decades before she created a safe space for herself. She wasn’t magically transformed – she fought for herself when few supported her, and hearing her speak about how hard that was is alternately devastating and humbly uplifting. In the end, she “made it through” but the journey certainly muted her sparkle and left its scars, and the fact that she is still underknown and underappreciated says that there is still much more work to do to support marginalized artists like herself.

Surrounded by and drowning in criticism, both societal and self-inflicted, Aguilar still saw herself and others with a remarkable sense of attentive openness. This is the quietly astonishing conclusion of this retrospective. Every project in this show is rooted in a very real attempt to see clearly and compassionately, to get beyond surface stereotypes and see deeper into the rich complexities of individuals, including the artist herself. There is plenty of fragility in Aguilar’s story, but what shines through is her determination, making this retrospective an elegiac tribute, enlivened by a hard-earned dose of inspiration.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. Aguilar showed her work ay Vielmetter in Los Angeles (here) in the early 2000s, but that relationship may not still be active. Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best options for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Laura Aguilar, Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art

One comment

  1. Pete /

    Important work and a tremendous review.

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