Los Angeles

Laura Aguilar, Three Eagles Flying, 1990, three gelatin silver prints, each 24 × 20".

Laura Aguilar, Three Eagles Flying, 1990, three gelatin silver prints, each 24 × 20".

Laura Aguilar

Laura Aguilar, Three Eagles Flying, 1990, three gelatin silver prints, each 24 × 20".

IN LAURA AGUILAR’S PHOTO Will Work For #4, 1993, the artist is pictured holding a cardboard sign that reads ARTIST WILL WORK FOR AXCESS. She’s standing in front of a gallery’s concrete exterior, panhandling for an “in.” It would be too easy to see “Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell,” her retrospective at the Vincent Price Art Museum in Los Angeles, as the obvious and final answer to this performance, or as a palliative for the paucity of representation of brown, queer, impoverished, and chronically ill folks—all of whom are brought to the fore in Aguilar’s body of work—in an institutional realm. Although she has inspired countless visual artists, as well as students of Chicanx and Latinx history and culture (an archive of her papers and photographs from 1981 to 1995 resides at Stanford University’s library), this is her first comprehensive monographic exhibition. As a self-proclaimed brown, fat, and poor lesbian artist, Aguilar has been denied “axcess” (add dyslexic to the list, too) on nearly every front.

Those who do know of Aguilar most likely first encountered her work through the germinal photo triptych Three Eagles Flying, 1990, in which the artist’s seminude rope-bound body is centered between the Mexican and American flags—positioning her as a captive of each country’s national and ideological formations.

Although she has inspired countless visual artists, as well as students of Chicanx and Latinx history and culture, this is Aguilar’s first comprehensive monographic exhibition.

In addition to identificatory mappings of the body, expressions of deep affection run rampant across the exhibition. Although Aguilar sometimes casts a critical eye on herself (the videos Talking About Depression and The Body, both 1995, are revelatory and psychologically intimate), the viewer senses nothing but love in the photographs of the artist’s familiars. Such immediately apparent closeness is a rare sight in today’s irony-steeped culture. Aguilar’s work invites the kind of looking that both disturbs and confirms one’s sense of the world.

For example, I fell to pieces over the photo Gil Cuadros, 1993, in which the eponymous writer and poet is portrayed. (Cuadros and Aguilar became friends in the 1970s while attending the same high school in Montebello, California.) Cuadros’s style proves him to be a queer of his moment: He is pictured wearing a V-neck sweater-vest, wire-rimmed glasses, one hoop earring, and a flannel tied around his waist. A fugitive curl of hair droops over his forehead, emerging from an otherwise perfectly gelled crew cut. Captured just so by Aguilar’s camera, he is stunningly beautiful. Like many of her sitters—photographer Joyce Tenneson and poet Manazar Gamboa among them—Cuadros reappears throughout the exhibition, in one work peering from behind the collar of a dark coat (Gil Cuadros #1, 1983), in another (an assemblage consisting of a suitcase filled with memorabilia and photographs) pictured all over (Gilbert’s Altar, ca. 2001). Aguilar made the latter piece in Cuadros’s posthumous honor (he died of AIDS-related complications in 1996). The altar includes a diptych in a hinged photo frame of Cuadros on one side and Aguilar on the other, both of them riotously posing in front of classical sculptures. Other bric-a-brac includes a gingerbread-man cookie cutter decoratively stuffed with pills and a syringe, a Buddha icon with joyously raised arms, and a grinning Day of the Dead doll. A black-and-white photograph of Cuadros on his deathbed casts a pall over the entire assemblage. While the image evokes pathos, its depiction of vulnerability is precisely what lends Gilbert’s Altar its power.

Laura Aguilar, Gilbert’s Altar, ca. 2001, suitcase, ephemera, C-prints, 14 × 14 × 12".

This exhibition marks a return of sorts for Aguilar. The Vincent Price Art Museum is the on-campus collection of East Los Angeles College, where Aguilar registered in Chicano-studies courses as a young woman. Her first professor at ELAC, Sybil Venegas, is the retrospective’s curator, which makes sense given Aguilar’s predilection for working with a tightly knit group of subjects. The courses Aguilar took gave her the visual and historical tool kits to help her articulate her many identities, thus fortifying the foundation of her photographic practice. All the same, finding power and strength in the multivalence of identity is a journey, and Aguilar’s striving for self-acceptance is a recurring theme. This process is playfully apparent in the series “How Mexican Is Mexican,” 1990, three triptychs depicting the artist alongside six other brown women in total. Each sitter is pictured above handwritten text elucidating her specific relationship to the politics of identity. Aguilar appears three times, tracing a line from 20 YEARS FEELING ASHAMED to a more empowered position. In the final photograph of the series she is framed by lotería cards and regards the viewer with a bold gaze, the text beneath her reading: NO LONGER THE QUESTIONING INSTEAD ROOM FOR FORGIVENESS AND THE BELIEF IN POSSIBILITIES. I AM COMFORTABLE WITH WHO I HAVE BECOME. THIS I NEVER THOUGHT WOULD HAPPEN.

In a recent lecture she gave as part of the retrospective’s programming, Aguilar disregarded overly theoretical framings of her work, instead speaking solely of her relationships with her various sitters, emphasizing the personal nature of her practice. In this way, although many of the photos and objects on display at the Vincent Price Art Museum portray subjects other than the artist herself, the retrospective functions as a comprehensive portrait of Aguilar—of a life with many points of contact. Aguilar gives us “axcess,” different from the kind initially solicited by the artist in Will Work for #4, by focusing on herself and her chosen family—a community forged through radical intimacy.

“Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell” is on view through February 10, 2018.

Andy Campbell is a Los Angeles–based art historian, critic, and curator.