At 83, Bereal is perhaps the most important activist artist you don’t know.
That’s not how he’d describe himself, however.
“I’m a landscape painter,” says Bereal. “I’m painting the socio-political landscape.”
Wearing his go-to art uniform (overalls with pockets full of markers), Bereal strokes his gray beard in the glow of his computer screen. During several zoom sessions and video tours, roosters crow in the background and the reflections in his round, wire-frame glasses reveal vignettes from his rural, Washington state compound: home, machine, and wood shop, a big, red barn housing the art studios for him and his wife, artist Barbara Sternberger. Their horse Mark Rothko and pit bull Ray Charles often make appearances.
Washington’s predominantly white Whatcom County is where Bereal has lived since 1993. It’s a long way from Los Angeles’s predominantly black Riverside neighborhood where Bereal grew up and garnered famed in the late ’50s and ’60s for his early assemblage art and the controversial group show, War Babies.
Bereal is considering a mural proposal from a local food co-op in Bellingham. In late 2019, the co-op members had visited Bereal’s first retrospective and solo museum show — Wanted: Ed Bereal for Disturbing the Peace — at the Whatcom Museum. This is likely the first time Bellinghammers, as well as anyone else, had been confronted with Bereal’s work en masse. Bereal called the show a “hand grenade,” as the majority of work is a pulpy, writhing body of American flags and other symbols of what he calls predatory capitalism: from racist cops and Newt Gingrich to Hillary Clinton and Standard Oil.
Like many communities across the country, the co-op members wanted to paint a Black Lives Matter mural in support of the movement. And the fact that Bereal is considering the mural at all is significant as, for an activist artist, he has only painted one other street mural in his lifetime: He says he will only participate, however, if the mural says something more than “Black Lives Matter.”
“‘Black Lives Matter’ has already been said. Can you go deeper than that?” Bereal says. “I’m cursed with the demand that we all have to go further.”
That “curse” has propelled Bereal through a six-decade career of bricolage, street theater, video journalism, paintings, drawings, and installations, much of which was supposed to be on view to the public in 2020 before COVID-19 hit. With some recalibration, the show Ed Bereal: With Liberty and Justice for All is now on view virtually with the Viking Union at Western Washington University, where Bereal was an assistant art professor, and Apex: Ed Bereal will soon be up virtually at the Portland Art Museum.
In late 2019, I visited Bellingham to cover the Wanted retrospective for the New York Times and have stayed in touch with Bereal since, because, as he put it, the retrospective was merely a “launching pad” for what comes next, both in medium and message; it was only a pitstop in the cursed journey of going further.
This is a titillating promise since, in 2019, after 8 years of working on it, he completed the most ambitious piece of his career: “Exxon: The Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” a 40-foot holographic installation combining painting, assemblage, metalworking, and projection. The piece features five life-size “horsemen” — a Nazi (War), Ronald McDonald (Plague and Famine), Donald Trump (the Antichrist), the grim reaper (Death), and a businessman (Predatory Capitalism). Their mannequin bottom halves are dressed in their respective costumes, all with oil nozzles as genitalia. The top halves spell out “EXXON” in a graffiti script made from layers of painted glass and projected images and light, creating a ghostly hologram effect for each horseman’s bust.
Considering Bereal first made a name for himself with small, gritty assemblage pieces featuring nails and pipes (and sometimes swastikas, Bereal was fascinated by the graphic punch of Nazi propaganda) such as “Focke-Wulf FW 19” (1960), Bereal’s cursed journey has already been long.
It can be traced back to 1966 when the Watts Rebellion, which had been raging on and off for a year, landed quite literally on the doorstep of Bereal’s Watts studio. The civil unrest against policy brutality in the black neighborhoods of LA had yet to pierce Bereal’s art world bubble, but the fatal police shooting of Leonard Deadwyler in May, while he was driving his pregnant wife to the hospital, reignited the protests, and the government’s response. On the morning of August 14, Bereal opened his studio door and was caught in the crosshairs of a National Guardsman’s .50-caliber machine gun. He realized that if the guardsman pulled the trigger, no art-world connections, no positive critiques, no impressive CV could deflect the bullet from tearing through him.
“Watts represented the way I was raised, forcing itself into the art world,” says Bereal.
LA looks like it’s going to burn down because of my former culture erupting. I looked around in the art world and they are pretending that ain’t going on. The U.S. is very good at pretending that something is not so. It was Let’s Pretend, and I’m not good at that.
His Watts awakening provoked one of his first overtly political pieces, “America: A Mercy Killing” (1966–1974), which was subsequently acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “America: A Mercy Killing” is a mixed-media scale model of a stage set for a screenplay Bereal wrote about the hierarchies of class, race, governmental and corporate power, and media. At its focal point, Mickey Mouse is executioner, his grinning mug printed on a guillotine blade that castrates those who are regarded as a threat to this system. This piece marked the beginning of Bereal putting his socio-political conscience at the center of his work and transitioning out of making art to, in his words, “entertain wealthy people.”
The fact that Bereal isn’t a household name may be precisely because he took the activist route. His LA contemporaries did group shows that garnered accolades, but outside of War Babies Bereal mostly declined to participate, not wanting to get lost in the polished, post-war, West Coast pop art propagated by peers and friends Larry Bell, Joe Goode, and Ed Ruscha.
“That wider art world that I was being exposed to had no place for the activist artist,” Bereal adds. “The deeper I got into the ghetto the further the art scene started to fade.”
“He didn’t want to be boxed in,” notes Matthew Simms, the West Coast collector for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. “He had resisted opportunities for public exposure.” Bereal, with the assistance of Simms, is in the final stages of donating his papers to the archives, which firmly places him in the canon of American art.
The Archives of American Art is the largest archive focused on American art anywhere, and having his papers here, alongside the papers of other artists of color, including Senga Nengudi, John Outterbridge, Noah Purifoy, and many others, makes clear that what we call “American” is robustly diverse.
In the era of “America: A Mercy Killing,” Bereal founded the guerilla street theater troupe Bodacious Buggerilla, which performed on street corners and church steps, in laundromats, prisons, and nightclubs alongside headliners such as Richard Pryor. The troupe pilloried the status quo and its pillars of institutional racism and capitalism (often police who Bereal calls “urban terrorists,” were portrayed in pig masks), while also teaching black youth how to empower and defend themselves.
Bodacious caught the attention of the FBI, which pushed the troupe to move to another medium as Bodacious TV Works. With this production outfit, Bereal turned to video journalism and traveled the world to cover political unrest and war zones in Kosovo, Ireland, Malaysia, and Cuba.
When this period came to an end, Bereal and Sternberger — who he had met in the 1980s when he was teaching art at the University of California, Irvine — moved to Bellingham. Here, Bereal says he’s found the quiet needed to tackle the issues he’d faced in the streets.
His first formal foray back into the art scene since the late sixties was exhibiting his work in the 2011–2012 group show Pacific Standard Time: Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950–1970 at the Getty. The exhibition displayed the 1965 assemblage piece, “American Beauty,” which features a prominent backwards swastika filled with stars and stripes.
In 2016, the Harmony Murphy Gallery hosted Ed Bereal: Disturbing the Peace, Bereal’s first solo exhibition in Los Angeles. The most explosive featured piece was “Miss America Presents Domestic Terrorism” (2003/2015) (now on display in the Viking Union show). A harbinger of what was to come for Bereal’s work and for the US, the large-format graphite drawing centers a defiant New York City policeman, jack-booted with arms crossed, enveloped in the unraveling American flag that makes up the body of Bereal’s “Miss America,” character. She is a ghastly mistress of ceremonies who recurs in several of Bereal’s paintings, drawings, and installations, always sporting a skull with a crown of nails, bony mechanical arms, and full breasts. Scribbled across the image is the message, “New York’s Finest: Domestic Terrorists. Proud, Courageous, Loyal and Racist as Shit!”
Bereal says the lingering anger from the beating of Rodney King and the shooting of Deadwyler, and the police exonerations that followed, inspired the 2003 rendition. In 2015, he updated the piece with newspaper clippings about the police killing of Freddie Gray.
“That piece could have been done in the middle of the last century,” or yesterday, Bereal says.
As Bereal embarks on his next body of work, with which he hopes he can push the “primitive” holography of “Exxon” to a more magical, illusionary place, he is also trying to push his examinations of racism and capitalism. Racism is rooted in a primordial terror, he says, and he wonders, after centuries of the systemic oppression of ethnic minorities in the US, if this terror has been coded into our genetics, a social evolution that has flipped on certain genetic indicators in our DNA.
“Terror is at the core. How do I put imagery together, a dialogue together, to address that?” he wonders. This question is central to what he wants to explore for the Bellingham mural.
“If you put the right question in your art, you can maybe get through,” Bereal explains. “And this moment, of uprising, may be the moment to break through,” Bereal says.
“It does feel different. I don’t know why it has taken this long to produce this kind of reaction. That’s beyond my understanding,” Bereal says. “I’m hoping it’s real and that it’s deep.”
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