Aguilar suffered a life full of physical and self-embarrassment, which she gradually addressed and confronted through art. In one of her earliest and most widely used self-portraits, entitled “In Sandy’s Room” from 1989, we see her naked and half-reclining in an armchair in front of an electric fan. It’s a great, funny and now classic picture: a new style Venus – perhaps related to the Willendorf Venus – relaxing, drinking in hand on a sultry day off in Southern California.
She once remarked that she was only really comfortable with her body when she felt it being touched by a breeze or warmed by the sun outdoors in nature. And here their late naked self-images play out, many in the deserts of New Mexico and Texas, whose terrain, as it now seems clear, is linked to immigration and border crossings.
Sometimes Aguilar poses with other women, but in the best of these images, that is, the most moving, she is alone, her face is often hidden, her stomach is aligned with and reflects the contours of the landscape and rock formations. The latest of the solo series “Grounded” from 2006 brought color into her work, which until then had mainly been black and white. There is also an element of sensuality – light and shadow on the flesh – that wasn’t apparent before. And there is harmony, even peace. This isn’t exactly a portrait of self-obliteration, but where her presence in her art has always been essentially about being separate, this is about being a part of it.
Aguilar, who struggled over the years to remain financially solvent and lived alone in a small house handed down from her family, died of diabetes and kidney failure at 58. At this point, although she had sold little, she had many shows, culminating in this one being organized by the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College in association with the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.
In 2017 in Los Angeles, her retrospective was a popular hit. As American cultural demographics change, it is making its way into the history books. But it’s still outside the mainstream, and probably always will. When the art world shapes its pantheons, it usually relies on glamor of a normal, starry kind. Aguilar doesn’t give us that. She gives ourselves honesty, imperfection, generosity. So much better.
Laura Aguilar: Show and tell
Until June 27th. Leslie-Lohman Art Museum, 26 Wooster Street, Manhattan. 212-431-2609; leslielohman.org.