San Gabriel, California
Long Beach, California
Summary of Laura Aguilar
Using photography as a tool for the empowerment of her community, Laura Aguilar provided new possibilities for the depictions of subjects and bodies that had traditionally been excluded from art history. These include lesbians, Latinas, fat bodies, working-class people, and those with learning disabilities. On top of the novel subject matter, her attention to formal aspects of photography also places her work in conversation with the white male-dominated modernist and photography traditions, to which she added her unique point of view as a lesbian Latina. Drawing from her own lived experience, Aguilar aimed, above all, to "to use art to give a voice."
- Aguilar opened up American visual culture and photography by turning the spotlight on marginalized identities, especially the queer Chicanx and Latinx community in the Los Angeles area, where she's from. Hers is not a token representation, but captures the diversity of the community "racially, sexually, philosophically, occupationally," notes curator Cesáreo Moreno.
- When Aguilar turned the camera onto herself, her work speaks of an ownership and celebration of her large body, which departed from the mainstream standard of beauty in art history as well as popular culture. She offered to the viewer a "nakedness" that is both "intimate" yet "dignifying."
- Before the term "intersectional identity" (how different facets of identity can "intersect" with one another) became common in art criticism, Aguilar's work stood out for showing precisely its workings: how sexuality, race, ability, class, etc. affect individuals and their access to opportunity in society.
Progression of Art
This work comes from Aguilar's series Latina Lesbians (1986-90), which was inspired by the proud and self-possesed women she had met through her work at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Each work in the series consists of a black and white photograph of a Latina lesbian and, below it, handwritten notes from the subject discussing how they see themselves. The series was sponsored by Los Angeles's Connexus Women's Center, and was intended by Aguilar as a "vehicle to educate," and a means to empower the represented individuals as well as any potential viewers in need of "role models that break negative stereotypes." In each of the portraits, the subject is shown in a confident stance with a proud, self-assured expression. On the handwritten statements, curator Claudia Zapata explains that, they "humanize the sitter, contextualizing their journeys and the evolution of their intersecting identities." Many of these texts, including the one by Laura V. above, discuss the subject's journey to self-acceptance.
This series demonstrates that, right from the beginning of her career, Aguilar was engaging with intersectional feminism (the approach to feminist studies that recognizes the effects of race, sexuality, and other aspects of identity on gender). Aguilar stated, "Within the Lesbian and Gay community of Los Angeles, people of color are yet another hidden subculture; we are present, but remain unseen. Through the work on this series, I have found this subculture to be a caring and diverse community of women who are quite proud and connected to their heritage." Curator Cesareo Moreno notes that Latina Lesbians also represents subjects who "are all professionals. We have the lawyer, we have the university professor, we have the archivist. We have women who have gone to college," breaking stereotypes about race, education and occupation.
Reflecting on the series, Aguilar remarked: "My artistic goal is to create photographic images that compassionately render the human experience, revealed through the lives of individuals in the lesbian/gay and/or persons of color communities. My work is a collaboration between the sitters and myself, intended to be viewed by a cross-cultural audience."
For her self-portrait included in the series, Aguilar's notes read: "I'm not comfortable with the word Lesbian, but as each day go's [sic] by I'm more and more comfortable with the word LAURA." The text shows Aguilar coming to her own as an artist, working with issues of identity without being limited by them.
Gelatin silver print - The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California
This image comes from Aguilar's largest series, Clothed/Unclothed (1990-94). Each work in the series takes a diptych format and features individuals, couples, and threesomes from the LGBTQ, Latino, and Black communities of Los Angeles (all of whom were close friends of the artist). The left-hand image shows the subjects clothed, and the right-hand image shows them unclothed. In Clothed/Unclothed #8, the two gay men pictured are standing back-to-back with their arms linked at the elbow in the left-hand image. In the right, one man stands with his arms crossed over his stomach, while the other stands behind him, resting his arms on the first man's shoulders. They are photographed against a solid black background, which especially directs the viewer's attention to the subjects' body language and facial expressions. The setup may also be a nod to Robert Mapplethorpe's portraits of his friends from the 1970s and 1980s, many of whom were also memebers of the LGBTQ community.
The juxtaposition of the clothed and unclothed images showcase the self-presentations of the subjects as well as provides a sense of comfortable intimacy as they proudly lay bare who they are for the viewer's gaze - what one critic has described as a "radical vulnerability." Arts writer Chadd Scott points out that, "In contrast to art historical precedents and mainstream visual culture, Aguilar's subjects are diverse in their body types, sexual orientation, and relationship to one another." And while the tradition of Social Documentary photography has raised debates around the power dynamic between photographer and subject - this was the case, for example, with Mapplethorpe's eroticized photographs of black male bodies - art historian Chon A. Noriega remarks that "Aguilar collaborates with subjects who are her peers so that her work is not about power differentials," adding that, instead, her portraits "envision the interpersonal relationships that make all communities [...] inherently diverse, complex, and unstable."
Gelatin silver print - The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California
Plush Pony #6
Aguilar's Plush Pony series (1992) documented Latina lesbians who frequented the Plush Pony bar in the El Sereno neighborhood of East Los Angeles. Like her Latina Lesbians series (1986-90), the Plush Pony portraits are all black and white. However, whereas Latina Lesbians captured professional women, Plush Pony focused on working-class individuals who formed the core community of the now shuttered bar. The series also differs from Latina Lesbians in terms of the emotions conveyed through the images. Whereas the Latina Lesbians portraits exude seriousness, the Plush Pony images are group portraits characterized by a sense of fun, playfulness, and camaraderie. In Plush Pony #6, for example, the three women wear large smiles and have their hands over each other's shoulders.The woman at the right has her left leg raised, playfully posing for the camera. The viewer gets a sense of a spontanoeus portrait captured in the middle of a night out among friends.
Art historian Marco Antonio Flores writes that the Plush Pony images "depict an empowering visual testimony to lives not often centered in the history of art." Similarly, arts writer and photographer Taylor Dafoe sees the series as "emblematic of Aguilar's skill in allowing people who are often marginalized or flattened to present themselves on their own terms" - and in their own space.
Gelatin silver print - The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California
Will Work For #4
In this image, Aguilar stands beneath a "GALLERY" sign on a wall, holding a handwritten cardboard sign that says "Artist Will Work For Axcess" [sic] as she looks straight into the camera. This work comes from her 1993 Will Work For series, which includes an image of her holding handwritten signs with the dictionary definitions of "access," "opportunity," and "success" (Access + Opportunity = Success, 1993). The makeshift aesthetic of the handwritten cardboard signs recalls homeless individuals panhandling for money on the streets, and thus draws a parallel between the two ideas, positioning Aguilar the artist as someone who requires a charitable intervention in order to gain access to museums and galleries due to her intersectionally marginalized identity Rita Gonzalez, the head of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, notes that Aguilar's misspelling of the word "access" points to her struggles with dyslexia and asserts that, "She's talking about access in so many different ways from the perspectives of a differently abled person and a Latinx queer artist." Made almost three decades ago, the work remains relevant today. "All these ideas of institutional access that we're all still talking about, so that feels very contemporary now," says Gonzalez, "She found a way of speaking for so many different people." Curator Pilar Tompkins Rivas sees Aguilar's "struggles" as having "a universality to them." This series recalls the public billboards created by the New York-based feminist artist group Guerrilla Girls that challenged the disproportionate representation of white male artists in museum collections (for example, Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum, 1989). Building on the Guerrila Girls' activist art, Aguilar's series highlights issues of race, body size, disability and their discrimanatory effects on individuals.
Gelatin silver print - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York New York
Three Eagles Flying
Aguilar's most iconic work, Three Eagles Flying takes the form of a black and white triptych with her body promenently placed in the middle against a black background. On the left is an American flag and, on the right, a Mexican flag. With her breasts visible, Aguilar's head and face are wrapped by a Mexican flag, with a thick rope forming a noose around her neck. An American flag covers her lower body. The noose rope also extends to bind up her wrists on her lap.
Charlene Villaseñor Black, a professor of Art History and Chicanx studies, remarks that the work "resists an easy reading." Black suggests that the work addresses the challenges and complexities of identity for Chicanx individuals who grow up feeling caught between their Mexican heritage and their life in the United States. They are "bound," as it were, between two sometimes clashing facets of identity, their day-to-day living experiences bringing them face to face with issues of racism, immigration, and national political debates. As arts writer Carolina A. Miranda aptly puts it, Aguilar presents herself as "a woman held prisoner by the conventions and ideologies of the two cultures from which she hails." The inclusion of the flags that frame her body, furthermore, speaks to the historical construction of oftentimes arbitrary national boundaries that have an impact on individual lives caught in-between. The flesh-and-bones reality of Aguilar's body here contrasts with the flags, two abstract signifiers that do not speak yet quietly assert their power.
Gelatin silver print - The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California
Nature Self-Portrait #2
In this image, Aguilar photographed her own naked body lying on the ground in a desert landscape. She is seen from the back, with her legs curled in front of her, her body echoing the three large rocks in the foreground. The photograph is part of her Nature Self-Portrait series, which is one of several that featured her own nude body. In the late 1990s, she turned her camera towards herself, explains former studio manager Christopher A. Velasco, "because she couldn't communicate like she wanted to with language." The outdoor locations also held significance. She wanted to photograph herself outdoors because she "felt accepted by nature." "Feeling the sun on her body was important to her," reflects curator Pilar Tompkins Rivas, "because she did not get a lot of [physical] touch in her life."
With this series, Aguilar challenged the tradition of landscape and modernist photography, which had been dominated by white men (key figures include Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz). Art historian Amelia Jones notes that "She's making these very beautiful modernist compositions, but with bodies that would have never been included in modernist photography." For this reason, reflects Black, her work wasn't taken seriously by the "mainstream" in the 1990s: her "nude body was so visible." From today's vantage point, however, her work was important for opening up new possibilities in photography.
Aguilar's display of her nude body puts her work in the long lineage of the female nude in Western art, whose standard of beauty her body challenges in multiple ways. Zapata notes that Aguilar's body "subverts the erotic and racialized ways white nude women have pervaded art history and re-positions her fat, brown body as an object of desire." And by placing her body in the American southwestern landscape, Aguilar's work, argues Zapata, subverts the American West and Manifest Destiny narratives in the traditional cultural imagination, her nude body a reminder of the bodies that had inhabited these vast expanses of "empty" land - and continue to do so today.
Gelatin silver print - J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California
Biography of Laura Aguilar
Laura Aguilar was born to Paul Aguilar, a first-generation Mexican-American welder, and Juanita Grisham, a housekeeper of Mexican and Irish descent. Whereas her mother was light-skinned enough to pass as a white woman, Aguilar had a darker complexion, which marked her out as a racial minority in America. On the other hand, she was often chastised by other community members for not speaking Spanish. Aguilar dealt throughout her life with the challenges of navigating her heritage and identity.
Aguilar was born with auditory dyslexia, meaning she had trouble with reading and verbal communication. She was also colorblind. She felt that she had a difficult childhood, as her parents had problems in their marriage, and they were unaware of her conditions, which weren't diagnosed until Laura was 26. She later commented, "It was very painful. How come no one else could have figured that out?" Her mother even suggested she drop out of high school, as she appeared unable to learn to read or speak English properly.
Aguilar also struggled with depression and body weight from a very young age. In 1995, she stated, "For as long as I can remember, I have always thought I should be dead." Her mental health issues were compounded by the death of her grandmother when she was young. She found solace in photography when she was in junior high school. Her older brother, John Lee Aguilar, who was in high school at the time, showed her how to use the dark room. He also let her experiment with his camera and the different lenses he had.
Aguilar assisted her brother with developing his photos, later recalling, "I printed up a lot of pictures of girls playing volleyball at the net and boobs bouncing up and down. Then he moved on to the beach in summer [and] it was bikini tops and stuff like that." A few years later, when she was a student at Schurr High School in Montebello, California, Aguilar took a photography class. Her first project for the class was a portrait of a basset hound in a cowboy hat. She and fellow student Gil Cuadros would venture together to Downtown Los Angeles to take photos. (Cuadros would go on to become a well-known writer; he remained close with her throughout her life.).
Education and Early Training
Aguilar didn't study art formally, although she took some photography courses at East Los Angeles Community College, where she also worked as photographer for the school paper. It was here also that she was exposed to Chicana/o Studies. Her most influential professor was Sybil Venegas, an art historian, curator, and professor of Chicana/o Studies. Venegas later remarked that Aguilar "was this young girl [...] Her mother had just died. She was very curious and she was always looking for stuff that might interest her." Venegas reflected, "There was a lot of Laura's life that was chaotic [but] in her photography, there was nothing disorganized, chaotic or dysfunctional." Venegas took Aguilar to East L.A. to see exhibitions and to learn about Mexican culture at Day of the Dead celebrations and other events.
Aguilar also grew close to Mei Valenzuela, one of her photography professors, who impressed upon her students the need to perfect her craft, especially as a non-White artist. "You have to master your craft or they will tear you apart," Valenzuela insisted, "You want technical quality so no one can put you down, and so they'll have to deal with your subjects." Aguilar spent her spare time photographing architecture and assemblages she created from objects found at her cousin's farm in Hemet. She also loved photographing children because, as she put it, "I was bigger than them and they would listen to me." She continued her studies through participating in workshops organized by Friends of Photography, a non-profit started by Ansel Adams, and the Santa Fe Photographic Workshop.
In the late 1980s, Aguilar came out as a lesbian. She spent the next decade avidly photographing the queer Chicanx community in L.A., before moving on to focus on self-portraiture. She settled in a clapboard bungalow built by her great-grandfather in Rosemead, where she housed her large collection of toys and had a studio space. She often did outreach and volunteer work with local women's centers and LGBT organizations.
Although Aguilar had gained recognition as a photographer since the early 1990s, her work remained known and admired among a small circle of audience that responded to her subject matter. Throughout the 2000s, her work flew off the radar of mainstream art institutions, even though, as one writer notes, it was "essential to the Chicanx community, and in academic circles, where it is hailed for its pioneering intersectional feminism," in which questions of both race and gender are considered in the examination of social inequality. It was only in the last decade or so that her work saw a "sudden resurgence in popularity" thanks to a traveling retrospective as well as groundbreaking thematic group shows such as "Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A." and the Getty's Pacific Standard Time initiative turning the spotlight on L.A. art.
Due to health issues, in early 2018, Aguilar was forced to move into the Colonial Care Center nursing home in Long Beach, where, a few months later, she passed away at age 59 due to complications from diabetes. As per her wishes, her ashes were spread by her friends at Joshua Tree National Park in California. Her lifelong mentor, Sybil Venegas, said of the artist, "Laura was an interesting person. She was very funny, she was very shy, but she was also very engaging, too. She knew how to attract mentors into her life. That was a gift she had, because she had a lot of them."
The Legacy of Laura Aguilar
Laura Aguilar was ahead of her time. Her work stands out as an early example of an art practice that encompasses intersectional identity concerns. As curator Sybil Venegas reflects, Aguilar "was so out front with these issues in her work with her body and her identity that people just couldn't deal with it." Today Aguilar joins the ranks of iconic Feminist artists, such as Ana Mendieta, Cindy Sherman, and Carolee Schneemann, who challenged the male gaze implicit in much of Western art history by putting their own bodies on a defiant display. Unlike the aforementioned artists, however, her photographs "were made without any of the attendant privileges," writes art historian Jane Ursula Harris, "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."
Aguilar's work also fits into the canon of urban Latinx documentary photography by artists such as John Valadez, Frank Espada, and Hiram Maristan. Arts writer Maximilíano Durón describes Aguilar as "a key figure in the Chicanx and queer art scenes of Los Angeles [who] has effectively shaped how we perceive identity today." For curator Claudia Zapata, Aguilar's work can be understood as a form of "activist" art that asserted marginalized voices into contemporary visual culture.
Today Aguilar's work is routinely included in courses on Chicanx studies, queer studies, gender and sexuality studies, and women's studies. Contemporary artist Alma Lopez states that she and other students who encountered Aguilar's work "see Laura as a role model, who despite all her challenges with learning and mental health and body issues, the fact that she speaks about those issues in a manner that is honest, risky, and self-affirming, they identify with that and see that as brave." Aguilar's work has influenced younger Chicanx artists, such as performance and installation artist Jose Villalobos, who challenges the colonization of both body and land in his work, much like Aguilar did in her Nature Self-Portrait series. For Los Angeles-based photographer Star Montana, Aguilar's autobiographical photography provides a model for her documenting of struggle and loss in her life.