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She Turned Her Audacious Lens on Herself, and Shaped the Future

Aguilar suffered a life of body-shaming and self-shaming, which she gradually addressed and confronted through art. In one of her earliest and most widely reproduced self-portraits, titled “In Sandy’s Room” from 1989, we see her nude and half-reclining in an easy chair, facing an electric fan. It’s a great, witty and, by now, classic image: a new-style Venus — related maybe to the Willendorf Venus — relaxing, drink in hand, on a sultry Southern California day off.

She once noted that the only time she was truly comfortable with her body was when she felt it touched by a breeze or warmed by the sun outdoors, in nature. And that’s where her late nude self-images are set, many in the deserts of New Mexico and Texas, terrain associated, as now seems clear, with immigration and border-crossings.

Sometimes Aguilar poses with other women, but in the best of these pictures, meaning the most moving ones, she’s alone, her face often hidden, her prone body aligned with and echoing landscape contours and rock formations. The latest of the solo series, “Grounded” from 2006, brought color into her work, which until then had been primarily black-and-white. Also, there’s an element of sensuality — light and shadow on flesh — that hadn’t been evident before. And there’s an air of harmony, even peace. This isn’t a portrait of self-effacement exactly, but where her presence in her art had always been essentially about being apart-from, here it’s about being part-of.

Aguilar, who scrambled over the years to stay financially solvent and lived alone in a small house passed down through her family, died of diabetes and renal failure at 58. By that point, although she had sold little, she had had many shows, culminating in this one, which was organized by the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College in collaboration with the U.C.L.A. Chicano Studies Research Center.

In 2017 in Los Angeles, her retrospective was a popular hit. As American cultural demographics change, she’s entering the history books. But she still stands outside the mainstream, and probably always will. When the art world forms its pantheons, it usually goes for glam of a standard, starry kind. Aguilar doesn’t give us that. She gives us honesty, imperfection, generosity, herself. So much better.

Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell

Through June 27. Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, 26 Wooster Street, Manhattan. 212-431-2609; leslielohman.org.

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