BY Jane Ursula Harris in Reviews | 26 APR 21

Looking Back on Laura Aguilar’s Pioneering Vision

At Leslie-Lohman Museum, New York, a retrospective of the late artist presents photography and video works that celebrate Latinx, Lesbian and working-class communities and the curative powers of self-acceptance

BY Jane Ursula Harris in Reviews | 26 APR 21

Laura Aguilar – who died in 2018 at the age of 59 – was a lesbian, working-class, Chicanx artist who, in Sybil Venegas’s essay ‘Connected to the Land’ (2018), is quoted saying that she ‘grew up on the edge of nothingness’ in California’s South San Gabriel Valley. Struggles with auditory dyslexia – a disability that went undiagnosed – and the death of her beloved grandmother marked her early years with a profound sense of isolation and self-loathing: ‘For as long as I can remember,’ the photographer darkly recalled in her video, The Body 2 (1995), ‘I have always thought I should be dead.’ Clinical depression and an increase in body weight followed – issues that helped fuel a decades-long practice, rooted in the politics of self-love, which has only in recent years received its due attention.

The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in New York presents ‘Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell’, the fifth iteration of the artist’s first retrospective, originally organized in 2017 by the Vincent Price Art Museum in Los Angeles. Highlighting Aguilar’s contributions to contemporary art, the show gathers more than 70 works made between 1981 and 2007, dividing them thematically into three categories: ‘Intersections’, ‘Belonging’ and ‘Landscapes’. Her signature black and white portrait photography takes centre stage, with series such as ‘How Mexican is Mexican’ (1990), ‘Clothed/Unclothed’ (1991–94) and ‘Nature Self-Portrait’ (1996) conveying the artist’s desire to find affirmation in community, courage in vulnerability and refuge in nature. The contemporaneous, confessional-style videos that accompany them reveal how hard she worked to do so in a society that deemed large, queer bodies to be pathologically other.

Laura Aguilar, In Sandy's Room, 1989
Laura Aguilar, In Sandy's Room, 1989, gelatin silver print, 107 × 132 cm; © Laura Aguilar. Courtesy: the Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016, the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, Los Angeles and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, New York

The only splash of colour among the many prints on view comes from Xerox Collage #2 (1983). The photocopy depicts polaroids of the artist and friends overlaid onto magazine cut-outs of fashionable white women labelled with the phrase: ‘Lesbian Woman’. It’s a label that even in her portrait series ‘Latina Lesbians’ (1987–89) – commissioned by the mental-health organization Connexxus Centro de Mujeres (Connexxus Women’s Centre) to combat homophobia – Aguilar struggled to embrace. Juxtaposing each portrait with a hand-written testimonial, she writes beneath her own image (Laura, 1988): ‘Im [sic] not comfortable with the word Lesbian, but as each day go’s [sic] by I’m more and more comfortable with the word LAURA.’ By the time she started her ‘Plush Pony’ series (1992) – tender portraits of the working-class patrons of a Chicanx gay bar in LA – we see in their warm, intimate expressions a reflection of her chosen community.

Laura Aguilar, Xerox Collage #2, 1983
Laura Aguilar, Xerox Collage #2, 1983, colour photocopy, 36 ×  23 cm; © Laura Aguilar. Courtesy: the Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016, the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, Los Angeles and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, New York

Aguilar is perhaps best-known for her nude self-portraits, and two of the earliest examples at Leslie-Lohman are the large-scale works In Sandy’s Room (1989) and Three Eagles Flying (1990). In the former, she spreads her relaxed, corpulent frame odalisque-like across a chair and ottoman. In the latter – an iconic triptych – she appears bare-breasted, her lower body wrapped in an American flag, while a Mexican flag covers her face. Like the noose around her neck that also ties her hands, there is a sense of being bound up, caught between identities.

In the exhibition’s ‘Landscape’ section, the artist appears finally to free herself, posing nude in the rocky desert landscapes and scrubby pine-covered foothills of her youth. Made between 1996 and 2007, these performative self-portraits are unlike any others before them. They may recall the earlier, feminist, body-based works of Ana Mendieta or Carolee Schneemann, but they were made without any of the attendant privileges: Aguilar was not white nor heterosexual nor a woman who experienced her body as conventionally desirable. Instead, she forged a brave and pioneering vision of body positivity in search of its curative powers.

'Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell' is on view at Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, New York, through 26 June 2021.

Main image: Laura Aguilar, Three Eagles Flying, 1990, three gelatin silver prints, 61 × 51 cm each; © Laura Aguilar. Courtesy: the Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, New York

Jane Ursula Harris is an art historian and writer who has contributed to publications including Artforum, Art in America, The Believer, Brooklyn Rail, The Paris Review, New York, and others. She is a faculty member of the Art History department at the School of Visual Arts. She lives in Brooklyn, USA.