Bold. Relentless. Provocative. These are some of the words that describe the exhibition Wanted: Ed Bereal for Disturbing the Peace.
The exhibition opened in September 2019 and is the first museum retrospective for 82-year-old Bellingham-based artist Ed Bereal. The show spans six decades of art, from assemblage to radical street theater and oil paintings. Bereal’s more recent works examine racial inequity, gun violence, corporate greed, and political power.
Although the idea for the exhibition had been floating around for a couple of years, it wasn’t until 2019 that it took shape. When Amy Chaloupka joined the Whatcom Museum as Curator of Art in January, she dove into planning the exhibition. She says it helped that she has known Bereal for two decades, ever since she took several of his art classes at Western Washington University.
So, how does a show like this come together? The carefully curated gallery in the Lightcatcher building is the product of months of effort. Here’s a peek at how it happened.
Chaloupka says one of the first steps is having a conversation with the artist to identify key works. Fortunately, many of the pieces were in Bereal’s archives, but some proved difficult — or impossible — to track down.
She and others spent months going through art at Bereal’s Whatcom County farm. “We kept finding new work he didn’t realize he had,” Chaloupka says. To borrow other pieces, the Museum reaches out to potential lenders, including institutions and private collectors.
The next step is creating loan agreements for pieces that will be exhibited. Chaloupka says the Museum must adhere to certain standards for handling, lighting, and conservation in order to display the art. For works on paper, lighting must be below certain lumen and heat levels. “That’s why when you walk into the gallery it may seem like the lighting is a bit dim,” she explains.
Chaloupka then mocks up a map that shows where each piece will be displayed. She says the layout plays an important role in a visitor’s experience. “It’s about the way you want to tell a story and direct the flow of traffic through the gallery. All of that has to be considered.”
Ed Bereal exhibition challenges
Tracking down several key works from Bereal’s early years proved to be difficult. “Some works were lost or stolen, or sold to private collectors who we couldn’t locate,” Chaloupka recalls. “It was a bit of a scavenger hunt.”
They spent a lot of time reaching out to private lenders to convey the importance of the exhibition. One piece they were never able to acquire was Junker Ju, which was auctioned by Sotheby’s in 2014. Despite their efforts, they were unable to connect with the buyer. The piece was last on public display in 2012. Now, its whereabouts are unknown.
Another challenge was digitizing some of Bereal’s work. Photographers/videographers David Scherrer and Steve Johnson were instrumental in compiling clips and creating a video of Bereal’s street performances.
“A football team of volunteers made this exhibition possible,” Chaloupka says. “It was amazing how many people rallied to get this show installed.”
Bereal agrees. Many people had a hand in the process, from preparators to volunteers who assembled the art, painted words on the walls, contributed catalogue content, and more.
“Exxon: The Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse”
On display for the first time, Exxon: The Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a 40-foot-long installation that combines assemblage and projection. Five figures spell out the word “Exxon,” and each represents a horseman of the apocalypse.
Bereal has been working on the piece on and off for about eight years. Much of the work took place in his two-story barn in Whatcom County. “The reason it took so long was because I gradually let it come together; I didn’t force it. It was a true evolution.”
He says the narrative behind the piece changed over the years. He originally wanted to spell out “Texaco,” but that was slightly too long. “I thought about the statement I wanted to make and that’s where the idea of the four horsemen of the apocalypse came in.”
With four horsemen and five letters, he had to get creative. That’s when predatory capitalism became the fifth horseman.
To create the piece, Bereal found objects and scraps of metal. “The nice thing about assemblage is the world is your resource,” he says with a laugh. He scoured the county to find the perfect scythe for the “death” horseman, finally locating it in a rummage store in Ferndale.
When it came to installing the horsemen, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. The gallery’s high ceilings meant the team had to be strategic with lighting and hanging projectors above each horseman to illuminate holographic imagery.
Museum preparators Paul Brower and David Miller spent long hours assisting with the installation of the piece, as well as with the rest of the exhibition.
“We build so much of the work on site,” Brower says. “This work (The Five Horsemen) didn’t really exist in its entirety in his studio. We did a lot of adjustments.”
Looking back and looking forward
Ed Bereal admits his feelings about the exhibition are complicated. “It’s a bit overwhelming. I’m dealing with my history. I have an emotional reaction to each piece because I go back to what was going on when it was created. Some of those were not comfortable periods in my life. There’s no direction I can look to rest emotionally.”
Despite this, he says it turned out well, and he’s pleasantly surprised by the positive reception.
Chaloupka says Bereal’s work is especially important today. The exhibition provides an opportunity for people to directly engage with art and its messages. “Politics and social justice issues are front of mind for many these days. Ed’s compelling work provides a forum for provoking conversation.”
Bereal hopes visitors leave with the desire to think critically.
“You can’t accept anything on face value, and certainly not my work,” he says. “People are always trying to sell ideas, and people need to deconstruct what they’re being asked to buy. We live in a world where you’ve got to think critically.”
Featured image (top of page): Ed Bereal in his studio. Photo by David Scherrer.