THE THREE GRACES? A detail from Jasmine, Hannah and Cecilia Swimming, Tennessee.
In 2006, after finishing undergraduate studies at Brown University and photographing a series on community gardens managed by Providence's Southside Community Land Trust, Lucas Foglia bought a minivan, put a bed in the back, and drove south "to photograph people who had responded to current day events, whether that was the economic recession or environmental concerns, by choosing to leave cities and suburbs to live off the grid."
Forty-tree photos from the 29-year-old San Francisco artist's A Natural Order series are the core of his show of the same name at Brown University's Bell Gallery (64 College Street, Providence, through May 27). They're augmented by 11 photos from his Front Country series about ranching, farming, and mining in Wyoming and Montana that he began in 2009 while doing graduate work at Yale.
Politics, religion, and environmentalism have inspired the folks — hippies living in wigwams as well as Christians who have adopted a horse-and-buggy lifestyle — in the Natural Order photos to grow and hunt their own food, to attempt to live more closely and in harmony with nature in North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia. A man uses a Toyota pickup to pull his plow; a mother helps her daughter shoot a rifle. Venison soaks in a tub overnight to keep flies away before canning; a man squirts milk right from a goat's teat into his son's mouth. Foglia tells me, "I'm kind of hoping these pictures start a conversation around the idea of self-sufficiency."
The theme ripples out of Foglia's background — he grew up on a small farm on Long Island, New York. In Patrick and Anakeesta Swimming, Tennessee (2007), a naked little girl perches on her bearded father's bare chest, rising like an island out of a pond near their house. In Valerie and the Shadow, Tennessee (2008), a girl in a "plain" Christian outfit of white bonnet and prim green dress stands half in sunlight, half in darkness in the family's dark goat barn as her father's shadow falls onto the hay floor before her like an omen. In Bear, Poisoned by Neighbors, Kevin's Land, Virginia (2008), the animal lays decomposing on muddy ground. It's a feral vision, like a Minotaur with fangs, furry head, and chest, but with human-like flesh where the fur has rotted off its belly and legs.
COUNTRY LIFE A detail from Pixie and Kyd’s Duet, Falling Leaves Rendezvous, Georgia.
The prints are lush and romantic — part from Foglia's eye, part from the fact that his medium format cameras vacuum up visual detail — but there's a sense of detachment from the people and a narrow emotional range. There's no anger or smiles or sadness. Everyone appears solemn or in reverie. "My goal when I'm there is to make a seductive photograph," Foglia says. "They feel like interpretations rather than facts to me."
So the photos read as idealized dreams, perhaps of new, sustainable American Edens. Three young "plain" Christian women in dresses wading in water in Jasmine, Hannah and Cecilia Swimming, Tennessee (2008) could be the Three Graces. Elsewhere Foglia puns on human nature versus animal nature with photos like Cora and Wesley, Tennessee (2010), in which a young blonde couple (since engaged) sit on a woodpile with a dog sprawled on its back in foreground baring its private parts.