Ed Bereal disturbs the peace



WHAT: “Wanted: Ed Bereal for Disturbing the Peace”
WHEN: Through Jan. 5
WHERE: Whatcom Museum’s Lightcatcher Building, 204 Flora St.
COST: Admission is $5-$10

WHAT: Art, Politics, and Community: A Conversation Inspired by Ed Bereal’s Work
WHEN: 4pm Sat., Sept. 21
WHERE: Whatcom Museum’s Old City Hall, 121 Prospect St.
COST: Free; register in advance

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

At first glance, I thought the six people standing in line by a “Please Enter Here; Have a Nice Day” sign near the entry of the “Wanted: Ed Bereal for Disturbing the Peace” exhibit at Whatcom Museum’s Lightcatcher Building were patiently waiting their turn to look at the sculpture suspended from the wall in front of them.

Then I noticed that the fellow at the front of the queue, a businessman type holding a large black bag resembling a lunchbox, had his bespectacled head on upside-down. Meanwhile, a mallet-wielding woman with pendulous breasts and a head and arms comprised of metal was on the verge of doing something unspeakable to him with her raised weapon. The rest of the nameless crowd—a preteen and a pregnant woman among them—waited for their fate like mute animals being led to slaughter.

The piece, “Miss America: Manufacturing Consent (upside down and backwards),” was alarming in more ways than one. My first instinct had been to join the cleverly disguised mannequins on their inevitable path to destruction, and it was only upon taking in the entirety of the installation that I caught my mistake. Also disturbing was the fact that the titular Miss America was a horror show. The stars and stripes of the flag she was enveloped in seemed to act as a prison—not as a symbol of freedom.

My date and I had arrived in the middle of a docent tour, and the knowledgable woman leading arts patrons through the mixed-media exhibit focusing on the 82-year-old artist’s first solo show of his long career was discussing a 1999 oil painting, “The Birthing of the Middle Class.” The monstrous Miss America was there again, literally and figuratively pushing forth what looked to be a fully formed white man. The words “It’s a boy!” were painted across the top of the red, white and blue painting, and stars were cutting through a variety of questionable characters (among them Adolf Hitler).

“Red is something we associate with violence,” she said. “Blood. Anger. We see the stars are actually cutting into the side and opening the men up. The stars are weapons. Ed is showing us that the symbol we put our hands on our hearts for—and that we are so thankful for—can become a weapon.”

The theme of Bereal disturbing the peace is evident throughout the sprawling exhibit, which contains 120 works and spans six decades—from the time the African-American artist was making assemblage and performance art in Los Angeles in the 1960s, to his awakening of the need to merge art and activism during the Watts Rebellion, and his ongoing examination of racial inequity, gun violence, corporate greed and political power structures.

These days, Bereal lives on a farm in Whatcom County, and is still involved in making creations that pack a punch, whether it’s through pop art, political cartoons, assemblages or oil paintings.

In “Wanted,” viewers get to see the scope of an artistic life lived with purpose. We see sketches that led to full-fledged paintings and sculptures, a chilling installation dubbed “Exxon: The Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse” that was years in the making,” and an “Homage to LA” that features kids with teddy bears and machine guns. 

Look closer, though, and you’ll also find messages of hope and even humor. It’s part of what makes the exhibit so enthralling.

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