Center #84 gelatin silver print, 9 X 12 inches (Courtesy photo)
Chicana and lesbian photographer Laura Aguilar exhibits recent works at the Esperanza

Laura Aguilar's reputation precedes her to the point that it's almost impossible to confront her images without preconceptions about what they are supposed to mean to the viewer and to Western culture. An acclaimed photographer in Latina and lesbian art circles and beyond, she was in the Venice Biennalle in 1993, and received an ArtPace residency in 1999. With her own body as her greatest subject, Aguilar has consistently linked her work to her personal struggles as a lesbian of color. Her two most recent series, "Motions" and "Center," were begun in 1999, following "Stillness," which was a meditation on the death of her father, for whom she cared throughout his illness. "Motions" and "Center," on view at the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center through November 21, offer an unmasked view of an artist's struggle with identity. Aguilar is a self-taught Zeitgeist, and her images reflect a larger movement for self-acceptance and public recognition among socially stigmatized groups.

"Motions" consists of black-and-white vignettes of one to three nude female models on scrubby Texas ranch land and rock outcroppings. The subjects in the series, though photographed in positions of repose or relaxation, do not appear completely at ease. There is a residual tension in the women's bodies, which adds to the artifice and causes the viewer to confront the photographer's

9am-6pm Mon-Fri,
and by appointment
Through November 21
Esperanza Peace & Justice Center
922 San Pedro
motives. This serves Aguilar's overt purposes, which are to challenge conventional notions of beauty and to celebrate people who generally are not portrayed scantily clad on billboards or magazine covers. It also is an uncannily accurate portrayal of the artist's own sense of the series, about which she has said: "My body is moving, my thinking is moving, my spirituality is moving." The images that are overly literal - two women surround Aguilar's body, demonstrating the cocoon of warmth and acceptance that she found in San Antonio, for instance - are the least engaging. But a triptych in which a cascade of three female bodies of different skin color, but similar shapes is revealed a frame at a time is one of the most moving sets in the show.

The "Center" series, in which Aguilar appears alone, again in nature in a variety of poses, from crawling, fetal-like curls to meditative stretches, also communicates the photographer's evolving emotional state. She has said that this group of images reflects her growing peace with herself, and a sense of comfort and relaxation - a disregard for the camera's presence - begins to emerge in many of the photographs.

Center #83 gelatin silver print, 9 X 12 inches (Courtesy photo)
The compassion for her subjects, herself included, differentiates Aguilar's photographs from political tracts. The images that work best are those in which the elemental appeal of black-and-white nude photography overtakes the artist's agenda, creating almost abstract, soft forms against the natural background's harder lines. These pieces accomplish something more universal than reclaiming a positive identity for marginalized groups. They surprise us with a concept of the human body rescued from the Botox and laser clinic and returned to nature as one of her beloved creatures, imperfect and vulnerable to illness and mortality, but capable of fully enjoying that double-edged sword.

Some of the cleverer images in "Motion" echo Renoir's Bathers and Cezanne's Large Bathers, but here the association of feminine ritual and communion with nature becomes a political reclamation. Aguilar's images are also very much in tune with the modern goddess movement, which advocates a removal from the male world and a return to the wilderness as means to recovering female power and vision. This in turn raises the question: How much can be accomplished in seclusion from society? The bathers, once refreshed, must return to the filthy, importuning real world.

In "Center," Aguilar finally reclines Odalisque-like on a large rock, facing up toward the sky rather than folded inward and away from the camera as she is in her earlier images. Perhaps the artist, having found her own center of gravity, is ready to turn her gaze outward. •

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