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Laura Aguilar, “Stillness and Motion,” Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.

The 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.

In 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 than that.

The 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 dispossession.  Playing 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.”

Using her 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.

        amrousseau.com copyright 1999