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The Natural

Photographer and artist Laura Aguilar tells a story. She is out having dinner with her cousin, who is a physical trainer and bodybuilder, when the conversation comes around to fitness. Her cousin gestures toward a thin, attractive woman and says, “Laura, I can make you look like her.” Aguilar replies, “Why would you want to make me short?”

Aguilar is neither short nor thin. In fact, by fashion-magazine standards, her ample form would be considered obese, perhaps even grotesque.

But is she beautiful? And to what extent does that matter? These are questions that Aguilar‘s work asks her viewers to confront. Through her photography, in which the artist herself is the primary model, she puts forth her own notions of the classic nude -- its form, its purpose, its audience. Because she is apparently free from common objectification, she is free to make an object of herself. The figures in Aguilar’s images take on the characteristics of found things. Stones, vines, water. Flesh becomes abstract and takes on the nature of the surroundings. In her Center series (2001), the artist, her skin pulled taut in a yogic crouch, is a boulder. Further abstracted by the silver print, she is smooth, hard and timeless until she rolls to her side, revealing a very soft and human torso as well as a rare glimpse of the artist‘s face. The effect is that of a seed or a cocoon bursting open. Although Aguilar challenges the idea of eroticism in her photographs, they can be erotic, nonetheless.

Aguilar resists creating or directing the environment for her photos, preferring instead to insert herself and her subjects’ forms into existing backdrops. She seeks out settings that intentionally push the visual and spiritual relationships between herself and nature.

In one set of prints, uncharacteristic in the apparent arrangement of elements on the ground, Aguilar poses behind a circular grouping of white rocks. She takes on a shamanistic air as she stands, arms stretched symmetrically. She explains that she found the rocks that way, gathered, perhaps, by campers.

Aguilar‘s reverence for nature and her sense of place in it stem from her childhood and, specifically, the role of two women -- her great-aunt Bea and her grandmother Mary. Bea, she explains, was a good Catholic and would attend Mass devoutly. But her grandmother’s philosophy was different: “Where you are, that‘s where you are worshipping God.” As a result, Sundays with her grandmother would invariably involve camping and hiking in the abundant countryside of Southern California. Maybe this is why Aguilar invokes a mood of worship in her Stillness series (1999). With her back turned to the viewer, on a carpet of leaves, she goes through a progression from kneeling to standing. Beyond the subject is a woodland cathedral, bathed in light, framed in branches. God accepts what man may not.

But before you get the idea that this artist and her work are dead serious, she tells the story of a road trip to Vegas. One of the women in the car asks how she manages the somber task of finding a location. Spying a dirt road off the highway, Aguilar shouts, “Stop!” Suddenly everyone in the car embarks on an impromptu hike and photo shoot. The resulting images were added to the Stillness series and are quite remarkable in their grace and energy. Are they beautiful? Ask yourself.

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