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Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014

America from the Back of a Harley

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Besides dreaming of streets paved with gold, the American consciousness dreams equally of exploring the places where those streets lead. From its “discovery” by the intrepid Columbus through the Lewis and Clark expedition, Mark Twain roughing it up and down the Mississippi and the Benzedrine-driven beatniks of On the Road, the Merry Pranksters painting the States Day-Glo and—who can forget?—Easy Rider, the American imagination returns ever and again to the theme of exploring the boundless bounty of these United States.

“Living Lost,” an exhibition of photographs by Josh Kurpius opening Jan. 17, at the Harley-Davidson Museum, is a latter-day addition to this venerable tradition of American adventure art. More than 30 photographs document the cross-country wanderings undertaken by Kurpius and comrades over the past few years. But this is not a Norman Rockwell-esque over-the-river-and-through-the-woods-to-Grandmother’s-house in the family station wagon type road trip. Rather, these individuals quench their wanderlust in a manner more reminiscent of 19th-century frontiersmen off to settle the Wild West…save that these pioneers ride Harleys.

Their horse-drawn carriages are customized motorcycles richer still in horsepower. Kurpius built his chopper from the ground up around the engine of a 1977 Harley-Davidson Ironhead Sportster. With a drastic, antenna-like “sissy bar” and elongated forks that push the front wheel across state lines a hot minute before its rider, the svelte machine was named “The Locust” after the angular, nomadic creatures it suggests in form and function. The chopper will be on display along with the photographs. This is fitting since The Locust, for all its aesthetic grandeur, more often serves as Kurpius’ tripod than as his subject.

Many of the photographs capture the dynamism of being on the go. Doing so required Kurpius to divide his attention while barreling down the road. In search of evocative angles, Kurpius knelt and stood on the seat, prostrated himself towards the pavement and otherwise assumed riding positions that would make an insurance agent swoon. His risk—did I mention The Locust has minimal and antiquated suspension?—pays off with shots of a vigor rarely captured.

These action shots are interspersed with photographs documenting the vicissitudes of life on the road. In addition to requiring refueling about every hour, the finicky machines are given to technical difficulties. The choppers require all the personalized care of a living being, and a number of the photos chronicle the mechanical know-how of the grease-begrimed and tattooed riders.

When the day is done, the riders eschew hotels in favor of abandoned barns, secluded woods or even just an ersatz tent made from draping a tarp over the chopper. Most anything will do so long as there is a watering hole nearby for bathing and swimming. The downtime photos solidify the sense of camaraderie that exists between the riders who together endure rain and shine, sickness and health, beer and cigarettes, endless highways and infinite horizons.

You needn’t possess a Harley and the financial security to hit the road at a moment’s notice in order to benefit from the unruly spirit of “Living Lost.” The exhibition is about more than choppers and road trips. Kurpius’ photography is a valuable reminder of the existential benefits of a DIY lifestyle. To “do it yourself”—whether it is building a chopper or cooking a meal from scratch—imparts a sense of accomplishment and individuality to our increasingly standardized lives. To live lost means to navigate the roads of life according to one’s own map.

“Living Lost” opens on Jan. 17, and is on display until May 18. The Harley-Davidson Museum will host an after party on Saturday, Feb. 1, at 8 p.m. with Josh Kurpius and musical guest Mount Salem.