Empress Has No Clothes
In the agitated,
sometimes impassioned world of politically-correct art, much
is made of certain types of “victimhood”: minorities of every
stripe, the sick, the poor, the physically challenged, the gender
challenged, the vertically challenged, the nearsighted, the
farsighted, the hopelessly ugly, and one could add the too-rich
and the too-beautiful, because surely they have their own brand
of exclusion and suffering.
(I’d like to try it you say, but take a second look at
the photographs of Tina Barney and see what they reveal about
the not entirely agreeable aspects of the lives of the last
two “victims.”) Still, some of us have the quaint notion that
art should be something more than a cri-du-coeur of injury or
oppression. An important objective of art is the ability to
transcend the usual methods of communication to create unique
expressions that cannot be transmitted through any other medium
or language. Otherwise, why not write a tract and pass it out.
Even when masquerading as manifesto, art might arguably be expected
to be interesting, startling, original, engaging, or even, (today
most shocking and rare) beautiful.
Laura Aguilar’s show of black and white photographs entitled
“Stillness and Motion” at the Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles
Projects Space the artist uses her own body to explore political
and material levels of experience. Ms. Aguilar, a self-identified
lesbian, audio-dyslexic, Chicana, “plus sized” woman, frolics
nude with her friends in the harsh desert landscape of Texas.
For the most part in this culture we have been denied visual
access to bodies that do not fit the “norm” of thinness and beauty. It turns out
that few women (despite their best efforts at dieting, exercise
and surgery) fit that “norm,” which is not really a norm at
all. We are bombarded with images of an impossible physical
standard that manifests in eating disorders among young girls
and a continual undercurrent of anxiety and self-hatred in any
woman who has ever gained five pounds. This is not to say that
men don’t suffer from related issues of identity and body ideal.
In fact there is an active measure of subliminal revulsion towards
bodies that are deformed or extreme in any direction, (except
maybe thinness.) Aquilar’s impudent photographs direct our gaze
into a world where a woman has gained a good deal more than
five pounds. It is not that she is overweight. She is much more
body here is recast in natural environments as a sculptural
element reminiscent of the sculpture of Maillot and Henry Moore.
Whereas Moore and Maillots’ work convey a sense of celebration
and reverence, Aguilar’s work is more about confrontation and
with ideas of “Mother Earth” and “Earth Goddess,” Aguilar engages
her body in a dialog with the desert landscape by crouching
head down under a curving tree limb, her back to the viewer;
or enfolding herself with the bodies of friends amidst a tangle
of thick viney roots. She stands naked in the path of a wooded
area and bends double, the heavy flesh of her breasts and stomach
falling forward to her knees, while balancing another woman
mounted back to her back. In another image three large women,
one dark skinned, another apparently blonde, (it is a black
and white photograph) and Aguilar lie on their sides on a rocky
slope in a diagonal configuration progressing one behind the
other from largest to smallest.
Aguilar, the largest, is at the front, her body facing
the camera, huge breasts bunched near her chin, one hand lying
on the cascading folds of her stomach. It’s a powerful and defiant
image. Here are three women, most assuredly not The Three Graces,
but something else, something that both mocks and echoes traditions
of the naked female figure enshrined in a natural setting. The
image invites comparison with the contemporary European/Western
image of the “ideal” female body, the bulimic/anorexic teenage
model whose waif-thinness epitomizes an (unattainable) ideal
of vulnerability, femininity and childlike sexuality. These
three women are not that. They do not gaze open mouthed into
the camera lens. They do not offer themselves or their bodies
for that particular kind of consumption. In fact, in most of
the photographs, the faces are hidden or obscured. Aguilar stands
or bends over with her back to the camera. She seems to be saying,
“This is how I am. Take it or leave it.” These bodies are offered
up for other kinds of consideration, both sexual and aesthetic.
She and her friends present themselves in all their glory as
objects of aesthetic contemplation and representations of lesbian-identified
eroticism. Yet she figuratively and literally “turns away” from the viewer.
She presents her backside to us. Not unlike Clint Eastwood
who famously says, “Make my day,” Aguilar seems to be saying,
“Kiss my ass.”
body as both figure and ground, Aguilar presents us with the
flip side of the anorexic model. Obesity is a disorder of equal
magnitude and disruption. Hers is an extraordinary act of courage
and vulnerability. To expose a naked body so dramatically out
of sync with standards of perfection takes considerable self-possession.
She makes public what is most private. By this risky act she
transgresses familiar images of representation of the human
body and replaces stereotypes with images of self-definition.
She reclaims her body for herself.
Art becomes a means of personal transformation. Hers
may be a body as distorted and suffering (in terms of health)
as the over-thin model, but it is her body, and she has found
a way of using it to carve out space in the public arena for
artistic discourse. That said, it is only because her body is
at the extreme end of a continuum that we give these photographs
a second glance. Were the figures merely “plump” or “portly”
they would refer directly to a long tradition of the “Nude in
Nature” where artists of all persuasions have photographed and
painted themselves or models romping naked and nude, only much
more interestingly, and to better effect.
For instance, with regard to attitudes toward the robust
female body, contemporary artists from Becky Singleton, Lynn
Bianchi, Lisette Model, Les Krims, and Botero, on through Rubens,
and Titian inspire considerably more penetrating reflections.
Minus the literal and figurative weight of Aguilars’ body, and
lesbian-Chicana identified subtext, these images fall flat.