1959 – 2018
Laura Aguilar, a fifth-generation Angelena who could trace her Mexican roots back to the middle of the 19th century, was a photographer who recorded organic forms of the body – often her own. She chose to photograph underrepresented people like herself: Latina, lesbian, and large-bodied.
As a youngster Aguilar suffered from severe auditory dyslexia which made it difficult for her to read and to communicate verbally. She didn’t learn that she was dyslexic until she was almost 26 years old. Photography became her outlet and her way to communicate when words failed her. Photography “became my escape.”
In the mid-1980s, studying at East Los Angeles College allowed her to find her artistic voice where a course in Chicano Studies took her to East L.A.’s Self Help Graphics. There she saw Chicano exhibitions and Day of the Dead celebrations which taught her about Mexican culture. This served as inspiration for her photography when she created portraits of East L.A. artists in Day of the Dead costumes.
The 1980s and 1990s were a fertile time for Aguilar. At first she worked on a photographic series about Latina lesbians, but these women were educated artists, lawyers, and activists. Realizing that she needed a counterbalance to these professional women, she decided “to show the whole community, not just half a community.” So Aguilar shot portraits of Mexican and Chicana women, who frequented a working class lesbian bar. This was her way of countering the whiteness of the mainstream gay-rights movement.
Aguilar’s most striking works are her nude self-portraits, starting in 1989 with “In Sandy’s Room.” In the 1990s, she made nude images of herself in her “Nature Self Portrait” and in her “Clothed/Unclothed” series. Aguilar photographed herself in Southwestern landscapes as she draped herself over rocks and boulders, curled herself into fetal positions, and inserted her nakedness into various landscapes. This led to her 2007 video where she talked about her struggles with depression and self-doubt, standing naked before a wall of stone.
Her work was included in the 1993 Venice Biennale and had recently been the subject of the retrospective “Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell” at the Vincent Price Art Museum. Her photography appeared last year in the two-part exhibition “Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A.” The last two shows were part of the Getty’s 2017 “Pacific Standard Time” series of exhibitions. She had a retrospective touring the U.S., which was at Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art in 2019.
Her photography has appeared in more than fifty exhibitions at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Hammer Museum, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. Her work is in the permanent collections of LACMA, Museum of Contemporary Art, and the New Museum.