The Water’s Edge: On Laura Aguilar’s Photography
By Rosa Boshier GonzálezJanuary 18, 2023
It’s December 20, 2020, and 65 degrees in Los Angeles, California. I’m driving along Alvarado to meet a friend at Echo Park. I slow down to take in the yellow storefronts of casas de empeño, the iron grills of Thai restaurants not yet open, a panadería roughly painted lavender, and the trapezoid motel signs dotting the horizon. I’ve been gone four months and the sky cracked open bright with these views makes me wonder why I ever left this city.
I’ve been in the car a lot on this trip to Los Angeles, acting like a stranger in my own city, much to the disapproval of my sister. “Hospitals are packed,” she scolds me, “What’s going to happen if you get into an accident?” Despite the risk, I can’t resist the act of driving. I marvel at my hands on the wheel, Sunset Boulevard widening in their background. It’s a way of life I surprised myself by missing over the past months of biking through the rainy winter in Oregon. I had felt naked out in the world without this aspect of car culture, the ability to remain both seen and unseen, intact and private.
I’m wearing a fur collar over my leather jacket, dressed for the drama I’m about to recount to my friend about my breakup. I’m starved to see myself as precious again.
Los Angeles has always been a contradiction of desperation and intimacy: an open mouth filled with bougainvillea, a desert with a freeway running through it, a desert with a seaside community, cracked earth thirsty for rain. Something that looks and feels like a desert, but as any Angeleno will tell you, it is subtropical, boasting just enough wild grasses and brush to separate it from its neighbor Palm Springs, an arid valley of the Colorado Desert.
Los Angeles laughs at any grasp towards sameness, any attempt at definition. Its skyline flickers, dancing in and out of your field of vision, dipping between a concrete reality — dry river, overpass, eucalyptus grove, pickup trucks, and Teslas — the synthetic shimmer of light on its horizon, a mirage ever shapeshifting so you can’t remember what it was that you were yearning for, but you know the want is there. A dream that recoils just as your desire turns towards it. Even in its fantasy form, Los Angeles won’t sit still. Just as you think you feel it beneath your fingers, it moves again into the shape of another bright, possible thing. It slips the knot of any focused gaze but demands to look at you. And in this way, it’s the queerest city I know.
L.A. photographer Laura Aguilar knew how to subvert the gaze just like her city. The subjects of her 1992 Plush Pony series, a collection of portraits taken with a drop screen at the back of an infamous, now closed, queer bar in the South Bay city of El Segundo, stare back at the camera, interrogating the gaze that falls upon them, fucking with our assumed authority as viewers. Aguilar’s Latina Lesbian (1986–90) series complicated the often-siloed allegiances of culture, class, and sexuality. The series was sponsored by Connexus Women’s Center/Centro de Mujeres, an L.A. lesbian community center. Yet many of the portraits and accompanying testimonials, handwritten underneath the photographs, subvert any strict identification. Taken collectively, the portraits form a roar of individuation. Herein lies one of Aguilar’s many gifts — to maintain her positionality simultaneously within and beyond a given community, to reject any or and relish the infinitely permissible/generated and.
Aguilar was born in San Gabriel, California, on October 26, 1959, and died in Long Beach, California, on April 25, 2018. Five generations of her family lived alongside the Rio Hondo in the San Gabriel Valley, an inherited link she most famously documented in her Nature Self Portrait (1996), which feature her straddling the rocks naked, her large body both of and apart from the land. In her 2017 essay “Clothed/Unclothed: Laura Aguilar’s Radical Vulnerability,” art historian Amelia Jones writes of “Aguilar’s insistence on making/looking/posing as relational processes; we become part of this relationality by engaging this work, and as we are implicated, this increases the emotional impact of the images.”
There is a sense in Aguilar’s photos that, as we view, we are also being fucked with, that the subject’s gaze back gains authority the more you look, becomes more of a question as to why we, the viewers, want to look at all. Aguilar’s subjects seem to demand either, What are you looking at? or, in their joy, as in the photo Plush Pony #6 (1992), why wouldn’t you look? Why would you ever look away? Here, I think of a remark that writer Roberto Tejada made about poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant’s work, but that I think is applicable to Aguilar’s photography as well: “It’s a kind of welcome and a kind of exile at the same time.” And in this diametrical mode of embrace and release lies agency. Each image carries within it a statement, but that statement isn’t of the photographer’s making; when Aguilar takes the reins of the visual field, the image is at first co-authored and then fully possessed by the subject she photographs, all within the span of looking.
This co-authorship, which slides into subject possession the more that viewers look, has a startling equalizing effect. Jones continues, “Aguilar’s work teaches us: all meaning is (at least) relational. All subjectivities are precarious (at least: mortal), although some suffer from their precarity more than others because they have no choice in living it. The best we can do is to be with our vulnerability, in order to recognize it in others: in order to acknowledge the possibility of making others less precarious.”
But acknowledging the potentiality of precarity is only possible while leading with love. I first encountered Laura Aguilar on-screen, her voice strong and delicate, emitting from the corner of a room in a basement classroom at CalArts. The video is grainy, light straining to project Aguilar’s images. The photographs are all of people she loved — her great-aunt Bea; her lifelong friend, the author Gil Cuadros — and I’m struck by the personal tone of her description. She notes how they met, what she loved about them, how they’re remembered, the kind of real estate they take up in her mind.
I’m fresh out of an MFA program when I watch the video, pumped with art jargon and lofty explanations of obscure poetry. In the cramped, windowless rooms of our creative writing department, every fart and fold of the body is somehow connected to the theoretical. It is a world in which all of us volley for import, meaning, intellectual real estate. But with Aguilar’s work, I notice that the impact feels effortless; its intellect and politics inhabit the frame, deepening as we continue to look, without forcing an agenda or ideology.
There is something inherently tricksterish about Aguilar’s work, especially the self-portraits and their ability to point out the universal experience of being together and separate from others at the same time. I wanted to know what Aguilar could teach us about loneliness. I wanted to know what she instinctively knew about kin — about the connections between community-making, ancestral knowledge, and land — in Southern California. I wanted to know more about the ways in which she felt like she belonged, the ways in which the world set her apart, and how she peeled herself away from social expectation.
We come from different places, Aguilar and I, though we both have roots in Los Angeles. I landed decades later, an accident of my parents’ status as migrant artists, shuttling between suburban Glendale and rapidly gentrifying Glassell Park. Aguilar came from five generations of San Gabriel Valley dwellers yet struggled to find visibility in the art world of her hometown. The daughter of working-class Mexican and Irish immigrants, Aguilar articulated in her photographs the hydraulics of belonging — of mixed identity, as well as of fatness and queerness — and understood the simultaneity of kin and loneliness in Los Angeles.
I have had the privilege of living in many other bastions of otherness — San Francisco, London, Portland, Houston — and when they didn’t please me, I had the means to seek other shores. Aguilar rarely left Los Angeles, and when she did, it stunned her. A whole generation of artists she influenced, from Rafa Esparza to Guadalupe Rosales to Aydinaneth Ortiz, are left behind to enact the creative possibilities she could have brought before the lens if she hadn’t died so young.
To write about Aguilar and her work is to write about the power of possibility and the potential of intimacy. Los Angeles houses all of this energy — its mythology and its cruelty, how they are shelved within each other, and how much Aguilar knew of each. I write to her, about her, in deference and not in kinship. Though I would have wanted her to be, she isn’t mine. And so, the question of any piece I write on Aguilar becomes, how does one write about love and admiration and kin without ownership? How do you love someone without breaking a little of them off in you, and if that breaking off cannot be avoided, then can it be a generosity? How do you make sure you are giving that little bit back tenfold, cultivating an art not just of exchange but of offering?
This essay is an experiment in that — in caring, in taking only a grain of sand’s worth of what you can give back. To this city, to this artist, and to the art of intimacy in all the forms that it takes.
That December day in Los Angeles, I found my friend sitting alone on a green iron bench, watching the ducks catapult themselves into lily pads and algae. I sat down next to her and we embraced, her chin grazing the fuzz of my collar. I opened my mouth. I wanted to tell her the story of how I had gotten to the precipice of, yet been recently dragged away from, a great love affair. I wanted to tell her about my lover’s questions delicately posed over wine in a sparce studio apartment, afternoons spent circling each other in art museums, probing for insight into each other’s worldviews. I wanted to tell her about shared music obsessions divulged over perfect cups of tea, books read at the same time without knowing it, the twinning of cultural and social histories. I wanted to tell her about lying next to someone all night and holding hands but not sleeping. I wanted to tell her about our first meeting underneath the mint-green bridge at Cathedral Park, the halo of greenery and water, and the feeling that I’d manifested something out of the preceding months of sorrow. I opened my mouth to tell my dear friend about the look of admiration caught in a mirror as I brushed my hair back, that feeling of ecstatic recognition.
And I wanted to tell her about the cascade of doubt that tumbled forward when that look was extracted, my viewer unreachable in the glass or elsewhere, nowhere to be found. The great silence between me and a body I had been close too, but not as close as I would have liked. “Want to live forever?” I was poised to ask her, a pithy line I’d thought up in the car. “Split up with someone in the midst of falling in love.”
I meant to describe this startling separation in the wake of intimacy, but all I could think about was Laura Aguilar’s Nature Self Portrait #4. In the black-and-white photograph, the artist lies naked across an open landscape. Her arm is extended and her head rests upon it, eyes closed. Her stomach almost touches the lip of a small pool of water.
I, like Aguilar, am interested in that lip, that edge. Suddenly, as I gazed out at Echo Park Lake, a body of water familiar to both her and me, I didn’t want to talk about my affair anymore. I wanted to appreciate the edge, the way in which love brings you beside yourself and invites you to take a look, to soak in the dichotomies of being whirled in and out of knowing, to inhabit that marginal space between recognition and bewilderment, one foot in the water and the other on dry land. I was close enough to it then that I could really taste what it was like to have been on the border of love, much closer than I am now, writing this. That feeling of being both isolated and alone in one’s intense experience of intimacy.
Laura Aguilar was the one that taught me that the act of loving is both being seen and unseen — to wholly embody oneself on the verge of being submerged, the thrill and terror of the possibility of consumption. She taught me how to want to touch the water, even knowing that it was just barely out of reach.
Rosa Boshier González is a writer, editor, and educator whose work has appeared in Guernica, Catapult, The New York Times, and Artforum, among others.
Featured image: Laura Aguilar, Nature Self-Portrait #1, 1996. Gelatin silver print 8 x 10 inches; 23 x 27 inches framed 3 of 4. Collection of Susanne and Jost Vielmetter, Altadena, CA. Photo credit: Brica Wilcox.
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