By Sandra Schulman
In a bold, in-your-face confrontational show, Laura Aguilar dares viewers to see her world in all its naked, lesbian, overweight glory.
Show and Tell, in Miami at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum at FIU through June 3, is a dark look at a woman’s journey to self-acceptance.
In a world that often glorifies women being thin and blonde, Aguilar — who died April 25 at age 58 of complications from diabetes — struggled with the images she saw growing up in East Los Angeles in the 1980s and 1990s. She had dyslexia, so she turned to photography to make visual sense of her depression, obesity, and the prejudice and misogyny she saw around her.
In a journalistic series of images, she first made images that poked stereotypical fun at Mexican families, showing them sitting in a living room watching cartoons on TV while all wearing Day of the Dead skull face makeup.
The best image is right in the first exhibition room, her iconic triptych Three Eagles Flying (1990), shows her soon-to-be signature self-portraiture: the artist’s nude body becomes a rebellion against the U.S. and Mexico, bound and hooded by the flags and ropes, she stands mute and exposed between two worlds. Her name in Spanish means eagle, so the two Mexican flag eagles plus her own body make three.
I liked the intimate quality of the Plush Pony series, where couples and groups of lesbian Latinas alternately mug and confront the camera. The devilish delight is in the black-and-white photo details of earrings, tattoos, scars, and rockabilly hairdos. The Plush Pony was an actual working-class, lesbian bar in El Sereno, a neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles, where Aguilar met the women who posed for the pictures. She was one of them, and it shows in the images as the women open up to the lens like a friendly face in the crowd.
Her later works are what really defined her, though. After exploring the world very close around her she turned to the mirror and her own uncomfortable image. How to come to terms with the self when it shows unpleasant realities? Once she was brave enough to make this stark decision, she couldn’t go back. Her body explodes across the surface, rolling and hanging like the East L.A. version of the Venus of Willendorf.
She not only shot her very nude self in the studio and in living rooms, she took it on the road to desert locales in New Mexico, posing with boulders she sometimes resembled and small pools of water, reflecting like Caravaggio’s Narcissus.
“Laura Aguilar’s works express raw honesty without demanding a singular response, and we are seeing how her exhibition is providing transformative experiences for those who are open to it,” said Jordana Pomeroy, the director of the Frost Museum. “We are honored to be selected as the venue where the public can currently experience Aguilar’s powerful approach to camera work, and her humanistic eye on her subject matter.”
Strong response is on display in the guest comment book inside the galleries of the exhibit, as it is already overflowing with handwritten messages proclaiming shock, outrage, loneliness, hope and inspiration. Comments range from “How could you do something like this?” to “I’ve been waiting for something like this all of my life.”
Prejudices against being fat, being gay and being Mexican and maybe even female (#MeToo) are in the forefront of the news lately but seeing all of these housed in one woman’s body, especially in the rarefied air of a prestigious museum, is a true gut check. How one initially reacts can be as unsettling as the images themselves.
I admit to being somewhat taken aback, thinking: Wow, these are hard to look at. But why? Because I’ve been conditioned to see women and nudes in a particular way? Because a small wave of embarrassment for the artist went through me?
By unintentional contrast, there is also an exhibit in the Frost Museum called Dangerous Women, mostly of historical paintings that show Mary Magdalene, Judith and Esther, Salome and Delilah, Lot’s Daughters, and Potiphar’s Wife, all women who cut off men’s heads or dared to love the Son of God.
Aguilar could be considered dangerous too, for exposing the underbelly of a society that doesn’t usually get shown in a museum, much less win awards and international acclaim for it.
SHOW AND TELL runs through June 3 at the Philip and Patricia Frost Museum, 10975 SW 17th St., Miami. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10 am- 5 pm, and Sunday noon-5 pm. More information at frost.fiu.edu or 305-348-2890.