On the floor of the California desert, inches from a small pool of water, a nude Laura Aguilar reclines on her side. Her breasts are almost stacked one on top of the other—crevassed between her chin and large belly. Her melted Dalí-esque flesh is reflected in the water, recast not as a female nude but as a desert rock formation. Her body doubles as a series of boulders, a mountainous form. The detailed features of her small face stand as a slight reminder of the humanity that’s in play.
This is Nature Self-Portrait #4 (1996), one of over 100 photographs in “Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell,” now on view at the Vincent Price Art Museum until February 10. Characteristic of Aguilar’s oeuvre, Nature Self-Portrait #4, presents a body types that is present all around us, but rarely seen in art or other visual media. Offered as a foil to the thin, feminine almost unreal and often photoshopped female form, Aguilar’s body, depicted as an element of nature, is at once revelatory and illustrative. Her physical reality is entirely her own, thwarting culturally-informed expectations of what body types get to be seen. She proposes a new standard – both for the photographer and the photographed.
Perhaps Aguilar’s photographs speak so clearly because they are her own personal form of communication, a language she has perfected in spite of a lifelong struggle with auditory dyslexia. Similar to those with general dyslexia, those affected by auditory dyslexia have difficulty processing phonetic patterns or linguistic sounds. Auditory dyslexics often experience sounds as reversed or jumbled, resulting in labored reading and slow auditory comprehension. In the video testimonial, Talking About Depression 2 (1995), featured in “Show and Tell,” Aguilar describes how, from a young age, this language disorder prevented her from being able to communicate with teachers and classmates, causing her to feel overlooked or invisible.
As she matured, Aguilar found herself faced with various identity crises. She questioned her sexuality as well as her connection to her ethnicity and cultural heritage, concepts she would later explore in her photography. Three Eagles Flying (1990), plays on the meaning of the artist’s last name, as águila means eagle in English. Aguilar remembers her father’s frequent reminder of this one aspect of her ancestry; “that’s as much about being Mexican as my dad ever shared with me.” Looking back, Aguilar never felt strongly supported by her family. Today she says, “one of my biggest thrills is having a family member acknowledge me as a photographer.” She wasn’t close with her father, who she says was never interested in her artwork, and her mother died when Aguilar was 21 years old. Depression was a constant in her life. Says Aguilar, “I needed to do something with it otherwise I was just going to drown.” Photography became a way of working through her depression, a medium for communication, and a way in which she felt she could finally make herself visible.
“Show and Tell” is Aguilar’s first retrospective and the only solo show by a Chicana artist in Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA. It documents her construction of a visual language and communicates her distinctive story, while also broadening the vocabulary of our visual culture at large. Characterized by a propensity for showing life’s unseen realities, her photos go beyond revealing the invisible. Rather, she inserts images reflective of her personal life into our visual vernacular so seamlessly that the viewer walks away believing these images have always been a part of the modern photography canon.
In her collection of photo essays, entitled the “Latina Lesbian series,” Aguilar explores two aspects of her identity. The photographs employ elements of self-exploration and self-communication, through which she again introduces an often underrepresented community to our visual language. Strong and proud, the Latina lesbians are also lawyers, musicians, and mothers who, like Aguilar, ponder their own identities. Included beneath each photograph is a message, handwritten by the subject, signaling an allowance on the part of Aguilar for each subject to tell her own story.
In Carla Barboza (1987) a suit-clad Carla sits confidently in a plush armchair, her legs crossed, a cigarette in hand. She stares directly at the viewer wearing an expression of bemusement, as if perplexed by our interest in her, yet, steadfast in her own existence. Beneath the portrait she has written:
“I used to worry about being different. Now I realize my differences are my strengths.”
Aguilar’s accompanying photographs in this series echo similar stories of self-acceptance. In the “Latina Lesbians series,” Aguilar also includes a self-portrait, wherein she envisions herself as a member of this community, despite a hesitancy to call herself a lesbian. In Laura (1988) she stands smiling heartily at the camera, her hands tucked casually into her pockets.
Next to her stands a shelf decorated with family photos, figurines, candles and other tchotchkes nestled between books. A large stuffed monster hangs from the ceiling by his arm and Frida Kahlo peaks over Aguilar’s shoulder, her dark eyes emerging from a print on the back wall. Illustrations of Mexican Lotéria cards including la sierna, el alacran, el nopal, el corazon, and la rosa create a border around the photograph. Beneath the self-portrait she writes:
“Im not comfortable with the word Lesbian but as each day go’s by I’m more and more comfortable with the word LAURA [sic].”
Without connecting directly with the word lesbian, Aguilar ties herself to the word’s meaning by incorporating herself into the Latina Lesbian series, expressing this self-identification visually.
Aguilar’s representation of the hidden develops throughout the exhibition, from her triptychs in the series How Mexican is Mexican (1990) which deal with depictions of national identity, to her Nature Self-Portrait series, which explore ideas of physical presence and the body’s relationship with nature. Laura Aguilar’s career has been devoted to depicting the existence of the unseen – Latinas, lesbians, and the large-bodied – and ultimately the artist’s inner self.