Born Houston, TX, 1978 / BFA, Kansas City Art Institute / Lives in Detroit
Born in Texas to a family of laborers, Peter Daniel Bernal says that he has always thought in color. But if it is color that first drew Bernal to painting, it is through dimension that he has shaped a place for himself. As Bernal paints, his brushstrokes build and blend to create depths and massed textures that he slowly, iteratively reshapes and repaints. His figures, often draped over each other in acts of care, violence, or some combination of the two, rise from the canvas. Through the vivid, evocative imagery he creates during this assiduous process of layering and scraping away, Bernal centers his practice in the intersection of his own identity and the broader politics of cultural heritage and masculinity.
In order to explore the specificity of his own experience as a man from a low-income Mestizo family, Bernal frequently centers on the bitter paradox of contemporary indigenous representation—visible to onlookers only when readily consumed. In Giant Corn Snake (2008), a long-haired man sits shirtless and barefoot in front of an open beer can, holding a twisting orange snake in his fists. The brushstrokes are thick and evident as the man presents the animal with indifference, his blank gaze meeting neither the snake nor the viewer. In this act, indigenous identity is reduced to an empty performance. In another work, Man Selling Magic Masks (2009), a merchant in faded denim sits, dejected, beside a pack of cigarettes and before three pale green masks laid out on a striped rug. Similarly, his expression communicates the dissonance he feels as he simultaneously sustains and commercializes his own cultural symbols.
Though his work is imbued with a reverence for working-class people, Bernal presents the darker realities of the life and labor of the marginalized; many of his paintings feature substance abuse and weapons folded into scenes of crime, policing, and incarceration. In High Society (2009), an unsmiling couple sits unconcerned with the man falling headfirst from the building behind them. His suit jacket floats away from his body as he falls past the word liquor spelled out in pink neon. A sign above him reads “GUNS” in red block letters, and a magazine laying in the street stars a topless woman beneath the title “High Society.” The bright colors and meticulous technique amplify the horror of the pivotal, premortem moment, in which fatal freefall is just another feature of the bleak urban landscape.
For Bernal, labor and violence are not only entwined with hardship, but also, inextricably, with masculine role fulfillment. In Torres Smashing a House (2010) a bleakly rendered construction worker and a shadow twice his size loom over a miniature house, hammer poised to strike and destroy the home—the heart of both family and identity. In Defender (2010), a relaxed man holds a rifle while a shotgun lays on the floor surrounded by shells. The hardwood floor, side table, and striped overstuffed armchair locate male brutality again within the domestic sphere. The title and the comfortable setting provide a stark contrast to the armed man and discarded casings, illuminating the disharmony of care expressed through violence.
But Bernal’s works are not entirely without hope. For example, Both Immigrant and Not (2018), painted on a Southwest Detroit viaduct, subverts the story of indigenous people displaced by colonial forces by featuring families weathering a storm on lifeboats, where they swing tiny European ships on string, impale them on harpoons, and watch as they are carried away by eagles. The brave faces of the subjects in the mural are those of the artist’s own family; a younger version of his father shares an inflatable raft with his niece and a miniature jaguar. Both Immigrant and Not epitomizes the subject matter and conceptual underpinnings of Bernal’s work. As he negotiates his own identity, Bernal sifts through the experiences of marginalized people both past and present in order to handpick moments that are sometimes despondent, sometimes hopeful, yet always charged with the complexity of the real.
Saylor Soinski, May 2019