Artist: Laura Aguilar (Chicana, 1959–2018)
Title: Motion #53
Medium: Gelatin silver print
Dimensions: 11 x 14 inches
Credit line: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Julie and Lawrence Bernstein Family Art Acquisition Fund Purchase, 2023.3.1. Image copyright of The Estate of Laura Aguilar.
The artist Laura Aguilar once said that she felt most comfortable in her vessel when “touched by a breeze or warmed by the sun outdoors, in nature,” so naturally, many of the works about her relationship with her body were taken outside.Inspired by the nude nature photography of Judy Dater, Aguilar’s nudes spanned across California’s Joshua Tree National Park, and the San Antonio desert alongside New Mexico, and Arizona including the series: Nature Self Portraits (1996), Motion, Stillness, Center (1999) and her final body of work, Grounded (2006/7). In all of these photos, Aguilar poses nude in the natural landscape, moving her body in profound and purposeful ways.
In the self-portrait Motion #53, Aguilar lays strewn across the bed of a dry river in the center, surrounded by three other female presenting people of diverse body types. Although the riverbed is dry, it emphasizes movement, alluding to the water that once flowed there. The woods that surround them lack vegetation, drawing attention to the softness of their bodies in such a sharp and harsh environment. This photo acts as a representation of Aguilar’s internal struggle as she crawls across the gravel of the riverbed, but also an external display of how varied one’s experience with their body can be.
Aguilar grew up in San Gabriel, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. Her father was second generation Mexican-American, while her mother was Irish and native Californio with roots in Misíon Vieja, a Spanish Catholic mission. In her childhood, Aguilar struggled with an intense case of auditory dyslexia along with a generally shy personality, making communicating for her difficult. Likewise, she also struggled with her sense of self and her weight, placing them at the forefront of her photographic self-exploration. Because of her dyslexia and her mental health struggles, Aguilar turned to photography as a means of self-expression where she didn’t need to speak.
Her photography career started with works that focused on her communities, weaving connections between queer, working class, and Latine American identities in portrait series like Plush Pony (1992), where she documented the working class patrons of a lesbian bar with their friends and partners. She tried landscape photography during her early years, but found that portraits allowed her to better interact with people and their bodies. She started the series Clothed/Unclothed (1991), a project where she photographed her community members with and without clothing.
While some art historians have focused on Aguilar’s nudes in nature as a way to focus on making marginalized bodies natural by placing them in nature, others choose to see her work as a romantic exploration of eroticism. Charlene Villaseñor Black, a professor at UCLA, writes that this ignores the “erotic potential” of Aguilar’s work. In an essay reflecting on Aguilar, Villaseñor Black tells a story from a class conversation:
“My students were quick to point out the monumentality of Aguilar’s body, which resembled a natural feature of the landscape. Graduate student Dafne Luna interjected with a powerful and discerning comment….How powerful it is to see a body like hers eroticized, she interjected, particularly for people whom society labels undeserving of love because of their weight, sexual orientation, or skin color. In other words, Aguilar brought to visibility the erotic life of people who are fat, queer, and brown.”
–Contributed by Elizabeth Vazquez, Undergraduate Curatorial Intern 2022-23
Aguilar, Laura, interview with Carolina Miranda, May 14 and 15, 2018, Los Angeles, California. CSRC Oral Histories Series, no. 17. Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, 2018.
Cotter, Holland. “She Turned Her Audacious Lens on Herself, and Shaped the Future,” New York Times, April 22, 2021. Accessed February 28, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/22/arts/design/laura-aguilar-review.html.
Lehtinen, Linde and Carr, Dennis. “Laura Aguilar’s California.” VERSO: The Blog of the Huntington Library website, June 14, 2022. Accessed May 4, 2023, https://huntington.org/verso/laura-aguilars-california.
Miranda, Carolina A. “Photographer Laura Aguilar, chronicler of the body and Chicano identity, dies at 58,” Los Angeles Times, 2018. Accessed February 28, 2023, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-me-laura-aguilar-photographer-20180425-htmlstory.html.
Venegas, Sybil. “Connected to the Land: the Work of Laura Aguilar.” KCET website, April 11, 2018. Accessed April 25, 2023, https://www.kcet.org/shows/artbound/connected-to-the-land-the-work-of-laura-aguilar.
Villaseñor Black, Charlene. “Reflections on Laura Aguilar.” Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies, vol. 43, no. 2, 2018, pp. 1–16.
 Cotter, Holland. “She Turned Her Audacious Lens on Herself, and Shaped the Future,” New York Times website, 2021. Accessed February 28, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/22/arts/design/laura-aguilar-review.html.
 Laura Aguilar, interview with Carolina Miranda, May 14 and 15, 2018, Los Angeles, California. CSRC Oral Histories Series, no. 17. Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, 2018, p.181.
 Villaseñor Black, Charlene. “Reflections on Laura Aguilar.” Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies, vol. 43, no. 2, 2018, p. 4..
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