When I first visited the studio of multi-disciplinary artist Isela Aguirre, she told me, “I am a painter, but I paint with light, color, materials.” Her creative practice incorporates both photography and camera-less photography processes, collage, fiber, painting as well as installation.
To my luck, she had a sizable body of work on exhibit in one of the Elgin Street galleries. There were no “paintings” ( at least in the traditional sense) on display. In lieu of stretched canvas with oil or acrylic paint, the paintings I found on display were crafted from colorful textiles and materials. Some hung on the wall, others folded over the third-floor balcony, cascading downwards into the space, light filtering through purple and yellow transparent plastics. A gold mylar-covered pedestal displayed work in deep tones of red, black, and purple, casually draped, its bottom extending on the floor.
Not all of the textile works hung flush against the wall. One piece in blue and yellow had the before mentioned suspended plastic sheet passing beneath it, its ending pulled snugly to the floor. One of my favorite works done in deep shades of red and inky blue had its bottom layer against the wall with its top layer pulled forward, its tail resting on multicolor platforms created from plastic six-pack holders. Everywhere I looked, there was fabric, stitching, bold colors, and abstract patterns to be discovered. Some of the work presented a quilt-like quality, their forms sewed and pieced together. Within the abstracted colors, I could make out the forms of nature, the silhouettes of foliage and leaves. I understood this to be the result of a cyanotype process, one that Aguirre would later explain more in-depth.
Once we began chatting, I learned that Aguirre had studied chemical photography in college. I don’t believe that is even a major anymore. We laughed at how times change. “In 2001, everything went digital,” she told me. Aguirre would go on to work as an art teacher, even working at the Magnet Arts High school she herself once attended. She maintained her creative interest, taking enrichment classes in subjects such as sewing and textiles. It was after taking a painting class at the Glassell school that she was inspired to pursue her MFA at the University of Houston. Like many students, her notion of being a painter in the art studio on campus was disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Classes went online, and Aguirre found herself at home managing her MFA studies and two school-aged children. It became quickly clear to her that a traditional painting practice was not going to work under the circumstances. Drawing from her previous experience with both chemical photography and textiles, she began experimenting with a new approach to creating work, combining natural elements with colored fabric and the cyanotype process. “I rely on on the sun and the color of the fabric to create a more painterly image instead of a stark flattened silhouette as some controlled cyanotype processes tend to produce. I am interested in the way the solution interacts with the fabric and creates a somewhat unexpected color. This is part of the surprise factor that I am interested in when I make images.”
I was struck by Aguirre’s ability to adapt and pivot her art-making process under the circumstances. Her cyanotype method evolved out of a need for efficiency, and she embraces the unexpected in her work. For Aguirre, the work has personal meaning, but it is not that important to her for the viewer to know it. For her, the key idea takeaway is that her work is light and portable. “Individuals are in a constant state of change whether we decide to embrace it or not.” Aguirre sees her work as ephemeral and nomadic. It’s important to her that her work isn’t heavy; the work can be folded, transported, rearranged, and reconfigured. When I asked her where this desire came from, she told me point blank that her home has flooded three times (something that many people who live in this part of the country have unfortunately experienced). The work’s physicality, in many ways, is a direct response to the human condition. “The older you get, you just have more stress, more things you have to worry about…I really wanted my practice to be something where I could be portable.” I found this idea very moving. Auguirre’s work is bold, but also non-precious. It’s a reminder to us all: Life is heavy enough, try to keep it light.
This post is part of a series in collaboration with the 2023 UH MFA Exhibition at the Blaffer Museum of Art, and written in partnership with the London-based Curator Maribelle Bierens, founder of the online platform where's the frame?