Wanted Ed Bereal for Disturbing the Peace by Chloé Dye Sherpe

Wednesday, November 06, 2019 7:51 AM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

On August 14, Ed Bereal woke to find a National Guardsman outside of his studio pointing a gun at him. It was 1965 in Los Angeles and the artist was living in the midst of the Watts Rebellion. Curator Amy Chaloupka titled this section of her essay describing the event as “An Awakening”. From that moment, Bereal’s artworks intensified and became even more pointed and critical. Building on his training and life experiences, his artworks continue to tackle corruption, corporate greed, commercialism, racism, and gun violence. By using characters prevalent in popular culture, from George W. Bush to the Joker, Bereal draws the viewer in by using startling imagery mixed with recognizable figures. The images are often astonishing, and will no doubt hurtle the viewer towards introspection and discussion. Layers of intricate drawings are sometimes superimposed with rough, found materials. In the end, Bereal constructs a poignant criticism and reflection of the challenging aspects of American history.

“Wanted: Ed Bereal for Disturbing the Peace” is the artist’s first solo museum retrospective. It is incredible that Bereal had never had a significant solo museum exhibition before this point. His work has been exhibited widely internationally at important art institutions like the Getty Museum and Centre Pompidou.

This exhibit includes Bereal’s artworks from the last sixty years in all areas of his career, including collages, sketches,  photojournalism, sculptures, and videos of his theater work. It also includes the never-before-seen installation, “Exxon: The Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” a forty-foot long piece with five “horsemen” created from assembled materials and projected light. The exhibition is impressive for several reasons. The scope and breadth of the artworks exhibited is the first of its kind. In addition, curator Amy Chaloupka expertly organized the exhibition so that a visitor who is new to Bereal’s work can move through his artistic career and many of the artworks have extended labels with more information. The museum does have a word of caution for visitors before they enter the exhibition, and the message states that the content may be emotionally charged for some visitors and that some artworks contain adult content.

The exhibition is organized into several sections that represent the phases and evolution of his artistic career. At the entrance, the viewer encounters “Political Cartoons” which filled with logos, familiar faces from politics and popular culture, and sarcasm. It is in this section that Bereal’s use of dark humor and his talent for illustration really shine. There is a wall filled end to end with sketches from the 1980s through the present. Bereal studied at the Chouinard Art Institute in their advertising design program and the institute was known for training Disney illustrators, so it is not a surprise that Bereal’s drawing skills are excellent.

After seeing the political cartoons and large-scale installations, the viewer is brought back twenty years Bereal’s early career when he was experimenting with drawing and assemblage artworks. This portion includes information about his involvement in the infamous War Babies exhibition Huysman Gallery in 1961, examples of his unique use of materials, symbols, and ephemera from the period.

Significantly, it was also during these formative years that Bereal lived through the Watts Rebellion. The impact of that event is evident in his work. “America: A Mercy Killing” is a mixed-media kinetic sculpture that he made while writing a screenplay and the artwork was originally intended to be a model for the set.

He continued his interest in performance while teaching at University of California, Riverside and University of California, Irvine. In 1968 he organized a group of twelve student actors into a group called Bodacious Buggerrilla to bring critical perspectives to their communities. For the following decades, Bereal continued to bring performance to the masses and later took his skills overseas as a photojournalist in the 1980s and 1990s. He continued to teach while on assignment outside the United States and sought to demonstrate how people could use photography and film as forms of activism.

It was very wise to put a warning at the entrance to this exhibition. The images are powerful, at times disturbing, and often evoke an immediate response. As a caucasian, millennial woman, I came to this exhibit with ideas and experiences informed by my life and the world around me. I can’t imagine experiencing what Ed Bereal experienced. A t the end of the exhibition, there is a table with several chairs for people to reflect and discuss their thoughts on the show. Notebooks titled “I leave wanting to…”, “I am still thinking about…”, and “I want to have a conversation about…” are sitting on the table. My recommendation? Take the time to observe the details, maybe chuckle at some of the sarcasm, deliberate about the challenging images, and witness the strange in this show. I also recommend reading the essays in the corresponding catalog. The authors expertly provide context for the artworks and respectfully share Bereal’s story. The curator also gives gallery tours and Bereal has participated in several events at the museum.

Chloé Dye Sherpe
Chloé Dye Sherpe is a curator and art professional based in Washington State.

“Ed Bereal: Wanted for Disturbing the Peace” is on view through January 5 at the Whatcom Museum located at 250 Flora Street in Bellingham, Washington. Museum hours are Wednesday through Sunday from 12 to 5 P.M. For more information,
visit www.whatcommuseum.org

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