Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell, organized by the Vincent Price Art Museum in collaboration with the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, is the first comprehensive retrospective of American photographer Laura Aguilar (1959-2018), assembling works in photography and video that she produced over the course of three decades. After opening in Los Angeles, and travelling to Florida and Chicago, the exhibition is finally open at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in New York City for its final viewing. The exhibition’s curator, Sybil Venegas (she/her) and LLMA Assistant Curator, Noam Parness (they/them), met over zoom to discuss her relationship to Aguilar’s life and work to prepare for Venegas’ public virtual tour of Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell. Below is an excerpt from their conversation. We hope you’ll join us on Tuesday, April 20th, at 6 pm EDT as Venegas takes us through Aguilar’s path-making and powerful work.
I’m curious, what was and is your relationship to Laura and her work?
My personal relationship?
Personally and as curator, all of the above.
Laura was my student back in the early 80s, after which we became friends. There was a lot to our friendship, but it was also a friendship where she as an artist shared her work with me as it progressed. I've seen Laura's work from her early portraits to the last series that she did in Joshua Tree. I was able to watch her grow as an artist, as a photographer. I watched her grow from an emerging artist in East LA, and to where she began to get a broader base of interaction with other institutions and other communities, to finally where, in the 90s, she began to show her work internationally—in Europe and Latin America. On a personal level, she was also a very good friend of mine. Towards the end of her life, she asked me and another close friend, Chris Velasco, who was also her photographer assistant, to be the trustees of her estate. Laura was like family to me, so when she asked, it wasn't that big of a stretch. We had no idea what the Trust would turn into after the Show and Tell exhibition, it kind of launched her into this renown and collectability. We thought we were just going to help her put her affairs in order and help her to die, as she was very ill and knew her time was short. It turned out to be something so much more that nobody–not even Laura herself–was expecting. In a way, being her trustee has been a way of continuing my relationship with Laura. Today, Chris and I are very much involved with her work and her legacy.
Thank you for sharing that. It’s amazing, having installed the show and seeing all her work across these decades, you've been with her the whole time in one capacity or another.
Yes, for example, when she would share her contact sheets, or when she would bring over small prints of what would be in an exhibition, I was often just amazed. Especially when she showed me Three Eagles Flying— it was a big leap from where she had been before, and eventually sharing the nudes in nature, which were really stunning and brave. To do what she did in the 90's was extremely brave. Today, of course, it’s still pretty amazing, but it's hard to overstate how extraordinary making that work was at the time. Nobody did that, or very few people did. And she just kept growing.
The tragedy of Laura is that she got sick so young. She passed well before her time. Had her health been different, she would have continued to move forward. As I saw it, her whole career was just always pushing it, pushing it, pushing it to the next thing, and every next thing was more stunning than the last.
Sybil Venegasis an independent art historian, curator and Professor Emerita of Chicana/o Studies at East Los Angeles College. She is among the first art historians to historicize Chicana art and is a recognized scholar in Chicana feminist art history as well as the cultural politics of Dia de los Muertos ceremonials in Chicanx/Latinx communities. As a commentator on Los Angeles’ curatorial and multicultural visual arts landscape, Professor Venegas’ extensive experience in the Chicana/o art community spanned the early years of Chicana/o art production. She is curator of the traveling exhibition, Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell.