Artist to Know: Laura Aguilar

Liz Catalano
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Swann Presents Rare Self-Portrait by Pioneering Chicana Photographer

Though many trailblazing artists are described as “ahead of their time,” few were more so than Laura Aguilar. The Los Angeles photographer worked in the 1980s and 90s to capture portraits of working-class, Chicanx, queer, and large-bodied people who society pushed aside. The language of identity and inclusion did not catch up to her work for another several years. Aguilar sought to expand the unfolding gay liberation narrative beyond what was palatable to the mainstream. In capturing portraits of others, Aguilar also created a space for her own multifaceted self.

Swann Auction Galleries will feature one of Laura Aguilar’s signature self-portraits in its upcoming LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History auction on August 19th, 2021. The sale starts at 12:00 PM EDT. Before placing a bid, learn more about Laura Aguilar’s life and legacy.

Laura Aguilar, Self-Portrait, 1983. Image from the Laura Aguilar Trust.
Laura Aguilar, Self-Portrait, 1983. Image from the Laura Aguilar Trust.

Laura Aguilar was a fifth-generation resident of Los Angeles and the daughter of a welder and a housekeeper. She had a difficult childhood. Some of her challenges arose from undiagnosed depression and auditory dyslexia, which made verbal and written communication a daily struggle. Aguilar turned to photography as an escape while in middle school. She soon discovered a love of visual art. 

Aguilar eventually attended community college and encountered the thriving local Chicanx community. She quickly abandoned her architecture and still life shots in favor of portraiture. Themes of self-identity also started to emerge in her work around this time. Aguilar felt the tension of existing as a Chicana lesbian in the 1980s. The artist processed this tension through various self-portraits held in dialogue with her body and political symbols. She also spoke openly about her mental health in her art and interviews.

Understanding the body is a key theme in Aguilar’s work. She faced shame and prejudice from others throughout her life, some of which she internalized. “Her work is personal, political, celebratory, and difficult, all at the same time,” Vincent Price Art Museum director Pilar Tompkins Rivas told ARTnews in 2018. “She speaks about a journey of self-acceptance—she speaks about visibility and difference, and the nature of life’s challenges.”

Laura Aguilar, Stillness #31, 1999. Image from Swann Auction Galleries.
Laura Aguilar, Stillness #31, 1999. Image from Swann Auction Galleries.

Aguilar sought opportunities to engage with the local LGBTQ+ community even as she explored the contours of her own identity. Her Plush Pony series captured the lives and loves of working-class regulars at a gay bar in Los Angeles. Aguilar often invited subjects to include handwritten captions below their photos. This gave her subjects agency over how their stories were told. These portraits of others paved the way for a more intensive self-portrait series in Aguilar’s late career. In the 1990s and early 2000s, she started placing her nude body in rugged natural environments. She usually turned her face away from the camera while baring her body for inspection. 

Swann Auction Galleries’ upcoming sale presents one of these intimate self-portraits (lot #254; estimate: USD 1,200 – $1,800). Titled Stillness #31, the available black-and-white silver print shows a naked Aguilar seated before a leafless bush. She folds herself in half and nearly touches her toes. Dark hair veils her downturned face. The arrangement mirrors the prickly branches to the viewer’s right, which extend out with equal yearning. 

Though Aguilar never entered the artistic mainstream of the late 20th century, she gathered significant acclaim within LGBTQ+ and Chicanx spaces. She enjoyed several exhibitions over the years, particularly in the Los Angeles area. Aguilar also lived long enough to see a career survey travel to New York in 2017. Despite this exposure, she sold relatively few prints and lacked financial stability. The persistent lack of recognition in the art world eventually took a toll on Aguilar’s physical and mental health.

Laura Aguilar, Plush Pony #2, 1992. Image from the artist, the Vincent Price Art Museum Foundation, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Laura Aguilar, Plush Pony #2, 1992. Image from the artist, the Vincent Price Art Museum Foundation, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

That distance from the private art market has continued since Aguilar’s death in 2018. Most of her prints reside in public art institutions, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Heritage Auctions sold one of her prints celebrating the Day of the Dead for $340 in 2008. Collectors will have another opportunity to acquire Aguilar’s work in the upcoming Swann Auction Galleries event. 

Despite the anonymity and marginalization she experienced in her life, the world is starting to catch up to Aguilar. “She had an ability to cut through the biases and habits of thought that makes us see a smaller world than actually exists,” said Chon Noriega, the director of the Chicano Studies Research Center, in a Los Angeles Times obituary. “And she did it as an expression of the stunning beauty of the human body, including her own.”

Laura Aguilar’s Stillness #31 print will be available in Swann Auction Galleries’ third annual LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History auction. Bidding begins on August 19th, 2021 at 12:00 PM EDT. Visit LiveAuctioneers for the full listings and to register to bid.

This auction continues a series of events celebrating LGBTQ+ pride in 2021. Check out Auction Daily’s full coverage of Pride Month in the auction industry this past June.

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James Ardis
James Ardis
Senior Writer and Editor

James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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