I’d been anticipating Laura Aguilar’s traveling retrospective, “Show and Tell,” over the past four drawn-out years, after it first opened in 2017 at the Vincent Price Art Museum in Los Angeles. When the exhibition landed at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, its final stop, her take on resiliency and repair offered many instructive life lessons, as its title quietly suggested. The survey spans three decades of the artist’s oeuvre and emphasizes her activism, which was cut short by her death from diabetes in 2018 at the age of fifty-eight, roughly seven months after the show’s tour began. Signs of Aguilar’s steadfast desire to expose the roots of social inequity are everywhere: from her empathetic pictures of working-class, LGBTQ, and disabled people of color living in structural poverty and her portraits of her dear friend the poet Gil Cuadros (who died of AIDS-related complications in 1996), to her short videos Talking About Depression 2, The Body 2, and The Knife, all 1995, in which she speaks candidly about her struggles with obesity and her inclinations toward suicide and self-harm.
Born in San Gabriel, California, to a Mexican American father and a Mexican Irish mother, Aguilar struggled with depression and auditory dyslexia from a young age. She found a novel way to express herself directly in photography, enrolling in art classes at East Los Angeles College from the late 1970s through the early ’80s. From the start, Aguilar embraced her origins by representing Chicanx and Latinx communities in eastside LA. Her earliest works on view here portray people in Day of the Dead calavera makeup, as in At Home with the Nortes, 1990, which depicts a family of four in a suburban living room watching cartoons on TV. She sustained this candid, everyday form of address in her output, but always with a gentle touch and great compassion for her subjects, her work calling to mind the documentary photography of Graciela Iturbide. Take, for instance, her loving portraits from 1992 of the wo-men of the Plush Pony, a popular bar among lesbians of color. Plush Pony #18 shows a mostly androgynous gang of four, half smiling, half smirking, and gazing directly into the camera’s lens. The series parallels Catherine Opie’s “Portraits,” 1993–97, though is less recognized. Why? Aguilar, primarily an autodidact forging her own path, knew all too well the reasons: Access + Opportunity = Success, 1993, sees the artist manifesting the titular truism via five black-and-white photographs. The first, third, and fifth images display the artist, her eyes cropped out of the frame, holding cardboard signs bearing handwritten definitions of ACCESS, OPPORTUNITY, and SUCCESS, respectively (the second image shows a large + sign and the fourth an = sign), offering through simple language and an economy of means a rather powerful lesson as to how privilege works and for whom it seems to work best.
In her influential 1985 essay “Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men,” artist and writer Deborah Bright called on women to “recoup landscape photography for themselves in response to its present character as a male preserve.” Aguilar’s standout photo series “Nature Self-Portraits,” 1996, and “Grounded,” 2006, ingeniously subvert the Wild West genre while taking up Bright’s invitation: In both, the artist merges her own body with the forms and bends of arid regions in California and New Mexico. The color photograph Grounded #111 shows Aguilar balled up and sitting on the earth, back facing the camera, her glorious physique mimicking the mighty monolith standing before her. Similarly, in Grounded #108, her torso, breast, and arm, placed flat against the desert floor, imitate the snaking lines found in an adjacent piece of dehydrated wood. As the concluding images on view here, these generous and vulnerable pictures of repair—of rest, stretching, and meditation—demonstrate that working with nothing but land was a source of healing for Aguilar. In one of her last interviews, she spoke about her many travels to Joshua Tree and what it meant to photograph there. She recalled how she searched for places where “the desert changes” from smaller rocks to larger ones, where her “body fit in.” It’s clear that the creation of this work entailed a form of radical acceptance on Aguilar’s part. In not seeing herself as isolated and encased in a discrete form any longer, she changed too. Her body became a landscape.