Book Review: Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell

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Stillness #26, 1999. Photograph by Laura Aguilar. Image courtesy of the Vincent Price Art Museum.

“They were here before it changed,” Mexican-American artist Laura Aguilar has said, referring to her maternal ancestors in the San Gabriel Valley, where she grew up, and the US-Mexico border. Before 1848, California and a handful of other southwestern states were part of Mexico. After the Mexican-American war, a different line was drawn in the dry, rocky landscape of the desert. It is this composite space, this terrain which forms the foundation of Aguilar’s work, particularly the “Rio Hondo riverbeds of the west San Gabriel Valley,” the Gila Mountains, and the Mojave Desert.

The first time I saw Laura Aguilar’s work was in 2014, at an exhibit titled “After Our Bodies Meet” at Leslie-Lohman in New York. Of this exhibition, the museum writes that it “explore[d] queer feminist artists’ responses to dominant notions about the body from the 1970’s to present day.” Three or four of Aguilar’s black-and-white self-portraits hung on the wall. In Stillness #26, she and another person are nude, walking away from each other, holding a long piece of white tulle above their heads. In Stillness #27, Aguilar and this other person hold hands, as she bends forward and the other person extends over her arched back — the layers and the textures of their bodies rich as the mountains and the brush in the background. In Nature Self-Portrait #4, she lays, completely relaxed and naked above a small watering hole — her full body reflected in grey tones. Reminiscent of Ana Mendieta’s Silueta Series, these photographs expand our understanding of the body’s interaction with the land. In Aguilar’s later work, her body almost becomes it.

Laura Aguilar is a “mostly self-taught” photographer who has been making art for over three decades. Her retrospective at the Vincent Price Art Museum in LA closed on February 10th, 2018. The book Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell, which accompanies this retrospective, exhibits the many facets that make up her work.

In an essay by Sybil Venegas, the Curator of Show and Tell, who is also Aguilar’s longtime friend and mentor, we learn about the bonds that weaved the basis for Aguilar’s work. Venegas conveys Aguilar’s close connection to her maternal grandmother, whose death when Aguilar was only a child left her with “a devastating emptiness.” Mary Salgado Grisham, Aguilar’s grandmother, was a painter and “a woman of the river who loved to collect rocks and go fishing.” Venegas writes that her grandmother “taught Aguilar to connect with nature, follow her instincts, be courageous, and, ultimately, be an artist.” Aguilar’s connection with her aunt also significantly informed her work. “As a child she would take long walks with her aunt, who at the time was losing her sight. In her approaching blindness, Aunt Inez would always ask Aguilar to describe the daytime light, the colors of flowers, the formations of rocks and surrounding nature in as much detail as she could.” It was her brother who would eventually lead her to photography.

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Nature Self-Portrait #2, 1996. Photograph by Laura Aguilar. Image courtesy of the Vincent Price Art Museum.

Themes in Aguilar’s work are extensive, as she presents not only compelling images of her body and nature, but also Latinx culture and queer Latinx community, along with the trappings of racism, fatphobia, depression, and poverty. She is incredibly open and vulnerable in her work, and this offers a specific intimacy to her viewers — one that can, at times, be unsettling. In another self-portrait titled, Don’t Tell Her Art Can’t Hurt (Part C), Aguilar holds a gun in her mouth, while handwritten text signifies the difficulty she’s faced as a person of color in the art world: “If you’re a person of color and take pride in yourself and your culture, and you use your art to give a voice, to show the positive, how do the bridges get built if the doors are closed to your voice and your vision?” Essays in the Show and Tell book examine how an artist of Aguilar’s caliber has been left out of the spotlight for so long, a reality reflected in some of her work.

Of the photos I originally saw in 2014, Macarena Gómez-Barris expands on the landscape in her essay titled, “Mestiza Cultural Memory: The Self-Ecologies of Laura Aguilar:” “The Gila Mountains, now a nature preserve, is a historical site of intense confrontations between Anglo-descended pioneers and Apache land defenders. By situating her mestiza body into the folds of land amid the boulders of the Gila Mountains, Aguilar calls forth the historical memory of Spanish colonialism, US colonization, and settler violence during the constitution of the ‘American West.’” Considering the depth of these historical contexts, Aguilar’s work also evokes ideas around origins, ownership, and violence — that which has come to shape the present.

At a time when immigration policies are most abhorrent, work that causes us to question the nature of borders is vital. Laura Aguilar’s work represents a beautiful, stratified engagement between the body and land — how cultural and personal histories can be called upon, how a body can mirror and belong to the earth. The retrospective at the Vincent Price Art Museum was long overdue. The Show and Tell book that accompanies it unfolds the story of an artist who once held a cardboard sign that read: “Artist (underlined) Will Work For Axcess” — whose body of work we all need access to.

Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell is at the Frost Art Museum in Miami until June 03, 2018.

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