Laura Aguilar’s California

Posted on June 14, 2022 by Linde B. Lehtinen and Dennis Carr | Comments (3)

A composition of three individual photos of a desert floor where middle photo has a naked and obese Latino laying on their side.
Laura Aguilar, #118, from the series Grounded, 2006–2007, printed 2018, inkjet print, 22 x 17 in. Gift of the Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016. © Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

A woman lies naked on the ground, warmed by the sun. The organic lines of her body echo the color and curves of the stone beneath her, and she seems to merge with her environment. The central image is flanked by two photographs of desert bunchgrasses and California fuchsia plants, whose tendrils and leaves cast painterly shadows. This work was created by American photographer Laura Aguilar (1959–2018). Often featuring her own body in the composition, Aguilar’s photographs explore a variety of themes and subject matter—from lesbian and Chicana identity to interventions with the Western landscape to cultures and subcultures of Los Angeles. Through a collaboration with Aguilar’s estate, The Huntington recently acquired a significant group of the artist’s photographs from across her career.

Composition of three photos featuring family as they celebrate the Day of the Dead
Left: Laura Aguilar, Harry Gamboa Jr. and his son Diego, from the series Day of the Dead, 1989, gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 in. © Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016. Middle: Laura Aguilar, Family part c (Miguel Angel Reyes and Daniel Norzagaray), from the from the series Day of the Dead, 1990, gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 in. © Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016. Right: Laura Aguilar, At Home with the Nortes, from the series Day of the Dead, 1990, gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 in. © Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

A fifth-generation Angelena, Aguilar grew up in the San Gabriel Valley and studied photography at East Los Angeles College in Monterey Park, California. Her work, made primarily between the 1980s and 2008, includes portraits of herself, friends, family, and LGBTQ+ and Latinx communities. Early in her career, from 1984 to 1992, Aguilar documented Day of the Dead celebrations and activities on the east side of Los Angeles. These festivities included parades, cemetery visits, and exhibitions initiated by the arts organization Self Help Graphics. Most of Aguilar’s Day of the Dead series was taken in 1989 at the Los Angeles Photography Center’s annual Día de los Muertos event. Aguilar constructed a large coffin as a prop for attendees, many of whom were part of the vibrant Chicana/o/x art community, including Barbara Carrasco, Diane Gamboa, Harry Gamboa Jr., and Ricardo Valverde. Other works from this series include couples and families in or around their homes wearing calavera attire and makeup, such as Miguel Angel Reyes and Daniel Norzagaray (1989) and the artists Armando Norte and Consuelo Flores in At Home with the Nortes (1990). These tender scenes honoring ancestors also celebrate powerful family dynamics of love, creativity, and connectedness.

Group of three queer women posing for a portrait in front of a roughly textured backdrop
Laura Aguilar, #4, from the series Plush Pony, 1992, gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 in. © Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

By the early 1990s, Aguilar had come out and had become very involved in the LGBTQ+ community, often photographing a wide range of events and people. Her series Plush Pony (1992), named after a Chicana lesbian bar located at 5261 Alhambra Ave. in El Sereno, features working-class lesbians posed in front of a cloth backdrop that Aguilar set up inside the bar (she got the old fabric from the art department at East Los Angeles College and added her own paint to it). She offered to photograph the women and sell them prints for $5 each. These intimate group and individual portraits, spontaneous yet deeply evocative, convey a strong sense of pride and camaraderie.

Queer middle-aged woman poses with her arms crossed in front of a roughly textured backdrop
Laura Aguilar, #13, from the series Plush Pony, 1992, gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 in. © Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

In Sandy’s Room (1989) was taken in her friend’s home near the San Gabriel Valley and represents Aguilar’s early interest in nude self-portraits. As she reclines in a chair on a hot summer day, framed against an open window, she holds a glass filled with Diet Pepsi (her favorite beverage), while an electric fan, resting on a stool, aims a cool breeze at her body. Aguilar had been looking through her friend Sandy’s glamour magazines while housesitting and tried modeling her own body in response to their idealized female forms.

Obese woman sitting naked in front of fan and open windows with a drink in her hand
Laura Aguilar, In Sandy’s Room, 1989, printed 1990, gelatin silver print, 42 x 52 in. Purchased with funds from the estate of Nancy and George Parsons. © Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

This experimental work would come to mark a watershed moment in Aguilar’s career, which led to her subsequent photographs of nudes in nature. These images often include Aguilar’s large nude body inserted into different natural environments to complicate traditional notions of female beauty. The large-format print of In Sandy’s Room was featured in a 2008 exhibition at The Huntington, “This Side of Paradise: Body and Landscape in Los Angeles Photographs,” making its return as an acquisition even more appropriate and meaningful.

A person stands naked and bent over in front of rock structures drawing  relationships between the cracks
Laura Aguilar, Untitled, from the series Grounded, 2006–2007, printed 2018, inkjet print, 22 x 17 in. Gift of the Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016. © Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Aguilar’s Grounded series (2006–2007) is the last group of nude self-portraits in nature completed by the photographer before she died in 2018. Aguilar chose Joshua Tree National Park as the backdrop because she felt a deep affinity for the rich color and vast, monumental boulders that frame the landscape and her body. Ironically, Aguilar was colorblind, but these vivid images capture the warmth of the sun and stark lines of rugged rocks, green plants, and blue sky. Her method of draping herself on boulders, curling into fetal positions, and absorbing her body into the landscape is both mesmerizing and surreal. The way her fleshy curves meld into the scenery both replicate and re-imagine views of the American West. Her close friends scattered her ashes in Joshua Tree, demonstrating how important this area was to Aguilar. Her friends also recall Aguilar’s visits to The Huntington, where she would enjoy strolls through the Desert Garden.

Black and white photo of obese individual sitting with back turned to the camera
Laura Aguilar, #106, from the series Grounded, 2006–2007, printed 2018, inkjet print, 22 x 17 in. Gift of the Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016. © Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

This group of Laura Aguilar photographs connects to multiple histories of Los Angeles across The Huntington’s collections, including California and the West, Hispanic and California materials, and documentation of Los Angeles artistic and LGBTQ+ communities. Aguilar’s work and background intersect with our existing holdings on photographer Edward Weston, California landscape photography, and Hispanic family materials and records. As we recognize and celebrate Pride Month, these photographs continue to serve as a vital record of these diverse communities and Aguilar’s exploration of her remarkable artistic vision.

Linde B. Lehtinen is curator of photography at The Huntington.

Dennis Carr is the Virginia Steele Scott Chief Curator of American Art at The Huntington.

Comments

So pleased that Laura’s brilliant and brave works will be housed at The Huntington. Laura Aguilar ¡PRESENTE!

I love her photos!

Wonderful, deeply moving photos. I look forward to seeing her work in person and including her in my art history syllabus.

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