Back to the land: Possum or chicken?

At Blue Sky Gallery, Lucas Foglia and Tamara Staples take us back to the land

By MARK FELDMAN

One of the most striking photos in Lucas Foglia’s “A Natural Order” is the large-scale color portrait of Acorn, who stands partly obscured in scrubby woods, shirtless, hip thrust to the side, holding a cast iron skillet. Acorn looks straight at the camera in an inviting and pensive sort of way. The skillet, presented to us, is mounded artfully with vegetables and meat, like something you might be served at a farm-to-table restaurant and pay handsomely for. But then you notice that the architectural element in the display is not a rib, but a tail. Opossum stew anyone?

Lucas Foglia, "Acorn with Possum Stew, Wildroots Homestead, North Carolina"/Blue Sky Gallery

Lucas Foglia, “Acorn with Possum Stew, Wildroots Homestead, North Carolina”/Blue Sky Gallery

One way I understand this photo is as a somewhat cheeky warning that contemporary back-to-the-land movements—diverse and decentralized—have surprising and unexpected tastes and textures. A recipe I found for “Stuffed Roast Opossum” describes opossum as “a very fat animal with a peculiarly flavored meat.” Somehow I expected it to taste like chicken.

The impulse to get back to the land runs deep. Who hasn’t—at some point—wanted to start over, to find a simpler life, to become more self-sufficient, or to forge a community? And yet, right from the start this alluring idea has been shot through with contradictions and questions. What land are we getting back to? What are we taking with us? What will we leave behind? Do we need to actually move somewhere? Will this be a one-way trip? These sorts of questions seem central to the somewhat unsettling pleasures of Lucas Foglia’s “A Natural Order” and Tamara Staples’ “The Magnificent Chicken” currently on view at Blue Sky Gallery.

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In 2006 Foglia bought a camper van and began to spend extended periods of time with back-to-the-land, off-the-grid communities in the southeastern U.S. Motivated variously by religious, environmental, and economic concerns, the people in these communities have created new and very different lives. In 2012 “A Natural Order” was published by Portland’s Nazraeli Press, and a tight selection of photos and a selection from the book is on view at Blue Sky Gallery.

Foglia’s photos are quite varied, with no set style or format. Part of the point seems to be that there are many flavors of back to the land ideas. That said, most of the photographs are portraits—after all, people are the ones going back to the land.

“Fish Cooked in Campfire Ashes, Falling Leaves Rendezvous, Georgia” is a portrait of a boy, crouched down, eating bits of flesh off fish vertebrae. While this is certainly primal, what’s familiar is the boy’s expression, his look. He seems to be contemplating his knuckles at the same time as he’s pondering something much more cosmic. This sort of split focus strikes me as common for children—or at least how we imagine children.

Lucas Foglia, "Fish Cooked in Campfire Ashes, Falling Leaves Rendezvous, Georgia/Blue Sky Gallery

Lucas Foglia, “Fish Cooked in Campfire Ashes, Falling Leaves Rendezvous, Georgia/Blue Sky Gallery

“Lunea with Deer Rib, Kevin’s Land, Virginia” also captures the distant, dreamy look of young children. Lunea’s staring into the distance, perhaps thinking about something profound, or simply feeling her dress on her body and her body on the bed. Again, an unusual detail intrudes: she’s holding a deer bone with most of the flesh gnawed off in her left hand—a small reminder that this is not a run of the mill 21st century American childhood.

Lucas Foglia, "Lunea with Deer Rib, Kevin's Land, Virginia"/Blue Sky Gallery

Lucas Foglia, “Lunea with Deer Rib, Kevin’s Land, Virginia”/Blue Sky Gallery

One of my favorites, “Sink, Wildroots Homestead, North Carolina,” is a sort of portrait without people. A porcelain sink with a handmade wooden frame stands amidst greenery. Instead of a kitchen window there’s an expanse of green hillside. You can imagine a body, a person, working here. I don’t fully understand why I like this photo so, but I do find it subtle and powerful. Here the kitchen that familiar center of the home is dramatically stripped away and we’re left just with a sink that has gone back to the land.

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Some of the photos struck me as knowing and ironic and left me a bit cold. “National Geographic, Wildroots Homestead, North Carolina” is certainly funny. Inside a rough wood and bark structure is a sleeping area—fur-layered over straw. Some personal effects are strewn haphazardly creating a sort of back-to-the-land diorama. The joke is the inhabitant’s reading materials: a couple of recent National Geographics, a magazine that has been documenting the edges of our world for generations. One of Foglia’s recurring insights is that all of the remote communities he visited are still connected in important ways to the contemporary society they’re leaving behind.

“Desk, Sassafras Community, Tennessee” is an artfully composed room that looks like it might belong on a design blog or Pinterest board. The humble minimalism and eclectic objects (framed deer head, typewriter, lantern, etc…) do look great. But the photo runs the risk of presenting something quite deep (all these back to the landers seem to be motivated by serious concerns) as pure surface or as simply an aesthetic choice. Certainly getting back to the land, in various ways is increasingly in style.

Lucas Foglia, "Desk, Sassafras Community, Tennessee"/Blue Sky Gallery

Lucas Foglia, “Desk, Sassafras Community, Tennessee”/Blue Sky Gallery

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Tamara Staples’ chicken portraits capitalize on the growing popularity of keeping chickens—for many, a manageable way of getting back to the land. Her photos are quite straightforward: carefully framed and skillfully produced portraits of heritage chickens. The chickens range from stately to ridiculous, but none are ordinary. Staples is the Annie Leibowitz or Irving Penn of poultry and each chicken is posed against a hanging fabric backdrop such as the vintage looking textile in Black Langshan Cockerel.

The irony seems to be laid on pretty thick. I’ve always found it strange how hip chickens have become. They roam designer chicken coops and adorn many arts and craft items. All of this, of course, is in stark contrast to the actual conditions of the vast majority of chickens.

Tamara Staples, "Black Langshan Cockerel"/Blue Sky Gallery

Tamara Staples, “Black Langshan Cockerel”/Blue Sky Gallery

This exhibit made me return to a question I’ve often mulled over: are contemporary back to the land activities, whether we’re talking about going off the grid or tending some chickens, about fundamental change (in lifestyle or habits) or are they compensatory and therapeutic? In other words, are we keeping a garden simply because it helps us cope better with the stresses and dissatisfactions of our contemporary lives? Or are we keeping a garden because it’s a small, but significant step towards changing something significant?

Looking at Foglia’s and Staples’ photos I found myself thinking about what we’re being offered, about the choices we have. Yes, there’s the opossum stew and hip, accessorized chickens, but there’s also a world of other possibilities that this show just might get you thinking about.

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