For the self-portrait series Stillness, produced during her two-month stay in San Antonio, Laura Aguilar navigates the emotional and representational landscape of her physical body; the pictorial syntax that informs the production and reception of her image; the spiritual possibilities that exist within and with nature; and the seductive potential and beauty particular to classic black and white photography.
These photographs are beautifully disquieting. They participate in a kind of subdued grotesque drawn from and encouraging of an aesthetics of reverence. Reverence for the mysteries of nature, reverence for the mysteries of the self, reverence for the contemplative communion found in the sublime unification of both. The artist has coaxed a kind of radiant immanence through the fusion of herself (sometimes with another woman) with the intense landscape of Southwest Texas – the desert-like dirt earth, the gnarled and imposing trunks of the Cypress, the graceful draping of ornate and low-hung tree branches, the unique sculptural authority of rock and boulder formations, the delicate waves of mesquite brush and Johnson grass, the muddy waters of the desperate local creeks and skinny rivers, and the empty horizon and infiniteness of the expansive and always fickle Texas sky. Within this magical landscape – exotic to all but its native inhabitants – the artist has placed herself where one might otherwise expect or hope to sight a roadrunner, coyote or buck.
The artist is conscious of the unconventional contours that constitute the parameters of her physical body: she is large, her torso draped in folds of fat not unlike the gnarled protrusions at the stumps of the Cypress trees with which she appears in images such as Stillness #22 and Stillness #23. While earlier portrait photographers who have cast their eye on the diverse range of human physical appearances have often chosen, like Diane Arbus and Joel Peter-Witkin, to focus on the freakishness of their subjects, Aguilar naturalizes her subjects. In this sense the aim and process of her photographic portraiture, including her self-portraiture, constitutes a decided departure from that of so many of her contemporaries. Unlike Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman or Cathie Opie, she is not interested in capturing or exaggerating the so-called perverse; rather, Aguilar adheres to a more classical aesthetic.
Her fascination with the tonal contrasts and formal clarity possible in black and white photography derives from the landscapes and still-lifes produced by the first wave of American photographers who demanded that the photographic medium was capable of being transformed into art; she is especially indebted to Ansel Adam’s iconic landscapes of the American West and Edward Weston’s precious renderings of seashells, bell peppers and other small gifts of nature. Although her explorations in self-portraiture began in 1990, her utilization of nature as both backdrop and intuitive guidance is more recent and has been directly inspired by the photographer Judy Dater, with whom Aguilar first studied in 1988 and who remains a friend and mentor. In 1996, Aguilar produced a nature self-portrait of herself positioned behind three small boulders in the California desert, her naked body configured in a fetal position with her torso and face—as in many of her self-portraits—facing away from both the camera and the viewer’s gaze. Inspired by Dater’s earlier photographic explorations with nudity and nature, Aguilar titled her 1996 image Her Spirit Moves Me, A Homage to Judy Dater. For the past four years, Aguilar has continued to work out a process that involves placing herself naked within a natural landscape and follows an intuitive procedure that seeks to align her response to the immediate environment with that of her camera.
Although the artist is primarily concerned with the spiritual and emotional impetus of her practice, her particular deployment of the female nude aligns with more consciously critical considerations of the representation of women – especially ‘the nude’ – in art history and popular culture, as first developed by Carol Duncan, Lucy Lippard, Laura Mulvey, Linda Nochlin, Griselda Pollock and other feminist critics in the early 1970s. The dominant pictorial tradition of ‘the nude,’ a genre assumed to connote the representation of the female body, was rigorously critiqued by second wave feminist artists and theoreticians for its establishment of pictorial codes that align with the political tenants of patriarchy and delineate the female body as an object of sexual access for male viewers and consumers.
Placing herself within nature (a setting, unlike those featured in either late 19th-century painting or early 20th-century photographic reproductions of naked women, which cannot be confused with a brothel), positioning her body according to postures and mannerisms suggestive of repose and contentment and averting her gaze from the viewer are among the stylistic codes, Aguilar employs which place her system of representation outside of and in opposition to objectifying pictures of women. The occasional appearance of another nude women with her – such as in Stillness # 15, Stillness # 26, Stillness #27 (which features a woman back-bending supine on the artist’s back), and Stillness #28 – further removes her iconography from an assumption of female sexual performance for men. Naked, and with nature, Aguilar wants to be with women. Installed at ArtPace in downtown San Antonio, these images take on a particular political commentary regarding local history. Before WWII an area not far from the art foundation, in a neighborhood bounded by Durango Street on the south and Market Street on the north, supported one of the largest institutionalized networks of prostituted women in the United States. According to a local historian, the “Class A” brothels in what San Antonio called its “Sporting District,” were decorated with “paintings of nudes” as well as crap tables, roulette wheels and velvet drapes. (1)
Laura Cottingham is an art critic who lives in New York City.
(1) Mark Louis Rybczyk, San Antonio Uncovered (Plano, Texas: Wordware, 1992), 20.