Critics’ Picks

Laura Aguilar, Motion #56, 1999, gelatin silver print, 15 x 16“. From the series ”Motion," 1999. © Estate of Laura Aguilar

Laura Aguilar, Motion #56, 1999, gelatin silver print, 15 x 16“. From the series ”Motion," 1999. © Estate of Laura Aguilar


Laura Aguilar

National Museum of Mexican Art
1852 W. 19th Street
March 22–August 18, 2019

The “culture wars” of the 1980s and ’90s never ended—one of the many lessons of the retrospective “Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell,” curated by Sybil Venegas. Aguilar’s many series, from the testimonial “Latina Lesbians” portraits, 1987–89, to the utopian nude landscapes of “Stillness” and “Motion,” both 1999, gave voice and image to an intersectional range of marginalized people, including those who identify as Latinx, LBGTQ, differently abled, depressive, and nonconforming.

Writing on an earlier version of this show, in 2018, Andy Campbell rightly noted the “radical intimacy” of Aguilar's portraits of friends, family, and acquaintances in East Los Angeles. Still, it is important to remember that the artist's engagement with this milieu was not without complexity and tension. For example, the “Plush Pony” series, produced during the time of the Los Angeles riots of 1992, contested the stereotype of the city’s communities of color as violent via straightforward group portraits of laughing and hugging denizens of a Latina lesbian safe space. As James Estrella points out in the catalogue, Aguilar’s forays into the titular club were tentative, given her awareness of the working-class origins of many of its patrons as well as her aversion to drinking due to the death of her brother from alcoholism. As the profound discord of neoliberal Los Angeles was erupting for the world to see, Aguilar was never more conscious of her alienation as an artist.

Aguilar’s sensitivity to the communities she documented also extended to her self, an equally complex subject. She bared her body in the studio (Nude Exercise #3, 1991), on video (The Body, 1995), and in the deserts of the Southwest (Nature Self-Portrait #4, 1996). That the artist passed away last April, during the run of this exhibition, adds poignancy to this occasion to understand Aguilar's efforts to represent her relationships with her work, environment, body, and country.