Laura Aguilar: A Three Decade Retrospective
at Vincent Price Museum through February 10, 2018
By Genie Davis
At the Vincent Price Museum through February 10th, Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell is a vast and stunning retrospective of Los Angeles photographer Laura Aguilar’s work over the past three decades. A part of PST LA/LA, the exhibition fills two floors with personal, political, and feminist images that grab viewers by the throat and heart, and threaten not to let go.
Curated by Sybil Venegas in collaboration with the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, most of the works here are black and white portraits or self-portraits. Here we see visceral, deeply personal images of subjects that Aguilar knows intimately, but which we may not have seen before in classic photographic portraiture. We see large, Latina, lesbian women; we see settings both commonplace and magical, as Aguilar moves from interior containment to the voluptuousness of nature as her backdrop.
This is Aguilar’s first full survey, and there are over 130 works, many brave and soul-searing. In her triptych, “Three Eagles Flying,” she uses her own body as a bold statement about her sexuality, her identity, and her personal acceptance. Aguilar herself – her last name means eagle in Spanish – is positioned between two flags, of the U.S., and Mexico. Connecting the two nations, her body constrained and head wrapped, she too becomes emblematic, representing her own personal nation.
In “Plush Pony Series,” Aguilar depicts women she met at the eponymous lesbian bar in El Sereno. She captures not just moments in time but people in time, people who slipped past the eye of mainstream photographers. These are engaging, deeply felt depictions in which the viewer has the sensation of getting to know the subjects in as intimate a setting as Aguilar herself. Of course, more intimate still are her “Nude Self Portraits.” Photographed while traveling through New Mexico, these are the transcendent images, exposing her body to us, accepting it as natural, placing herself in natural settings. Rocks and stones and flesh and bone – none of these can hurt her. As a viewer, the location and the body appear in essence to be one, all of the same piece, all a part of this earth. In each of these images, Aguilar’s work shows acceptance of herself, of the world around her, and of her own psychic wounds.
This is not just a visceral landscape of New Mexico rocks and hills, this is the landscape of the soul itself, with all its jagged edges. As Aguilar positions herself among towering boulders, she connects not only with the earth itself but with other beings who are seeing her upon it.
But it is not always easy to connect, for Aguilar, or the viewer. It reaches to the heart when she speaks directly to the viewer in a video work, naked, describing her photography, her struggles with believing herself worthy, her fear and depression. To not be moved and discomforted by the rawness of her narrative would be difficult.
But that rawness – which underlies many of her images – is fused with grace. Her struggle is our struggle, every last creature, accepted or forlorn, forgotten or embraced. Whether exploring her sexuality, her race, or her physical and spiritual being, Aguilar’s works are both gutsy and grand.