This Boy’s Life

The ACRE program’s one-room gallery may seem misplaced, being the only non-residential establishment next to a large empty parking lot on a side street in Pilsen. But for Adam Blumberg’s Boys’ Life, the one-room gallery space is perfect. It seems to fit the exhibit like a collection of memorabilia into a neat white box–a collection complete with a multitude of trophies, crushed beer cans, car parts, and nostalgic photographs of boyish antics, young and old.

Blumberg attended one of ACRE’s two-week residency programs and completed the exhibition there. “Since I have a full-time job it was really great,” he says, alluding to his current residence in Philadelphia. And while his education has allowed him to be well-travelled–he has studied at SAIC, the Center for Contemporary Kitakyushu in Japan, and Bard’s International Center for Photography–he grew up in the Midwest, and its influence over his work is quite apparent. A large American flag-emblazoned  firework box, fully detonated and spotted with tattered holes, is propped up against one wall. On another are shelved three trophies, one for the Root Toss Champion at the International Horseradish Festival.

Blumberg has an intriguing explanation for one of the other non-photographic components of the exhibition. Framed on one wall is a wrinkled piece of paper covered in stamps from multiple bars and taverns. Titled “RALLY IN THE VALLEY POKER RUN,” it describes the rules for an event that requires its participants to travel to multiple destinations, receive a playing card at each one, and compare hands with other players after they’ve returned to a predetermined meeting place. The sheet of paper is “also a trophy” to the artist because, as he explains, the bartenders at some of the checkpoints acknowledged him as the only Poker Run contestant they’d had all day. “I knew I had been the only one to go to all of them,” Blumberg boasts with a shy smile.

Simulatneously the most befuddling of components in Boys’ Life and the largest image in the collection is a framed faded portrait of George Washington. Without an explanation from Blumberg,it seems startlingly out of place among photographs of men and boys lighting off fireworks, the casualties of a demolition derby, and women washing motorcycles. The artist  describes the portrait as “an homage to working on cars and drinking beer,” since it was taken from a family member’s garage in which both of these activities were commonplace. Underneath the portrait is a shelf on which sits the rusted exhaust manifold of a Chevy engine and a few empty cans of Busch Light. The piece continues to the floor, where more empty of the cans lie in a way that one can only describe as meticulously discarded. The portrait of our first president also symbolizes for Blumberg the “ultimate man,” a powerful and respected figurehead that emphasizes the masculinity of Boys’ Life as a whole.

The photographs, which make up most of Boys’ Life, harness both the precision of modern equipment and the nostalgia of disposable film cameras. Their subjects are colorful and lively, filled with smoke and sparks and bikini-clad women. One photograph, taken from a distance, examines a crowd surrounding a young blonde woman as she straddles a motorcycle. Its focus is unclear, as the woman is not centered although the whole crowd turns toward her. “I’m more interested in the people photographing her,” Blumberg explains as he points to the men and women holding cameras in the picture. He hesitates to call it voyeurism; his unusual interest in the spectators makes Blumberg more a voyeur of voyeurs, which in the world of photography is a refreshing take on a fast-approaching cliché.

On the surface, Adam Blumberg’s Boys’ Life is reminiscent of the “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” mantra. It is a carefully collected assortment of memories and events wherein the explanation of each item’s meaning is key. As a whole, it captures the virility and simplicity of life in the Midwest in a way that successfully supersedes the misogyny and datedness that one has come to expect from Americana. Every item and every subject in Boys’ Life is valued as a testament to the youthful energy and community of the small towns that surround us, inciting a nostalgia that is as universal as it is personal.

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