In the 1960s, the Los Angeles art world’s detachment from the violent tumult of the Watts riots politicized Ed Bereal’s practice, propelling him toward a critical focus on multifarious forms of social inequality. He abandoned studio art in favor of guerrilla street theater, and later a satirical TV series for PBS. Both were ultimately deemed too radical for the general public’s tastes and shut down, and Bereal in 1990 returned to making what he calls “political cartoons,” which took the form of painting, sculpture, and assemblage. His latest exhibition, “Ed Bereal: Disturbing the Peace,” is on view at Harmony Murphy Gallery through April 2, 2016. It is his first solo exhibition in LA, showing works from 1963 through 2011, including footage of his performances with the theater troupe Bodacious Buggerilla and clips from his short-lived show on PBS.
IN THE 1960s, I was living a privileged life thanks to Bob Irwin and a few of my elders who had positioned me very well in the art world. Dwan Gallery was paying me to stay in my studio, and that was working pretty well until 1965. One morning during the Watts riots, I walked out of my house and there was a jeep parked across Venice Boulevard that just so happened to have a machine gun pointed right at my door as I opened it. I can remember looking at that National Guardsman and thinking, If I put all the articles that were ever written about my work and Irving Blum and Walter Hopps in front of me, that bullet would go through all of them. Those things had no real meaning.
During the riots, you could go into the Hollywood Hills and still see smoke everywhere. You could smell it. And the art world didn’t take notice. I began to realize that I was alienated from a place that had at one point informed me. I left my gallery and started writing things that turned into plays. My former students at UC Riverside and I made this monster called Bodacious Buggerilla, doing street theater about racial stereotypes, performing in bars and laundromats and on church steps. We got so good that we drew the attention of the FBI, who were investigating the Black Panthers, New Africa, paramilitary groups, the California grape pickers with Cesar Chavez—we were all in the same bag, as far as they were concerned. They started making it impossible for us, the students’ scholarships were put into question, and others were interrogated at their jobs. We morphed into Bodacious TV Works, a three-color-camera studio, and PBS accidentally let me through the door—then they shut it. That happens periodically to me, and then I find another door. We did a satirical game show called “Pull Your Coat,” which is a ghetto term for a warning. We disseminated information on there that the media wouldn’t share, using stereotypes of an egghead, a church lady, a black valley girl, or a guy shouting “Kill the Pig!” It was on national television for ten days, and then the management went, “Hey, shut that shit down.”
I’m not into art for art’s sake. I’m not into entertaining wealthy people. I think art can instruct, and I think it can destruct—it can be a weapon. Bob has a good eye, and we agree on a lot from a technical perspective, but once my stuff starts drifting into that idea of art as a weapon, he starts to back away. Bob comes from a different perspective in that way. I adore him. And you’ll never find a sweeter person than Ed Ruscha. But I don’t know if they understand me, and I don’t push it. I enjoy with them what I can enjoy with them.
I like some of what’s happening now—I love what Beyoncé did at the Super Bowl, it was something the mainstream media does not want her to do. I cosign that. But I did get a beautiful criticism from a young guy, one of my collectors’ grandsons who was in my studio. I told him, “I would like my stuff to have a conversation with people your age.” He said, “What’s your website?” I said, “I don’t have one,” and he said to me, “I thought you wanted to talk to us.” He’s absolutely right. I’m an old fart, but I’ve got to keep up the conversation.