For years, Los Angeles-based artist Cleon Peterson has created images that plunge viewers into dark, twisted tableaux, confronting them with shocking depth and detail of violence and oppression.
In his new exhibition Blood and Soil, which opens tomorrow at Over Influence, he focuses his unwavering, wild style on America, bringing to life the chaotic violence and authoritarian power dynamics that underscore our current political state. Cleon was kind enough to chat to me about his new series, about what he expects from it, and about the importance of enduring artists telling the truth to power in a moment of cultural crisis. We had the opportunity to sit down with him to talk about past ideas and work as well as his vision for the future of his work.
As a child I became very ill and spent a lot of time in hospital, which is why I hate cats and cigarettes today. To a certain extent, however, I am a busy artist trying to challenge the world through violent scenes. I can't look at Cleon Peterson's art and I don't want to talk about him without curiously finding him disturbing, or at least as disturbing as I think he can be.
The apocalyptic plague of blood and violence unfolds in his art, but the artist himself is in a pretty great place at the moment. In my opinion Cleon Peterson is currently the most underrated artist in the contemporary art space today.
The truth is that Peterson has not seen the panorama we all know, a place he knows personally only too well, but the hellish landscape from which he once fled is, so to speak, the world represented in his art.
Building on years of success in graphic design, he refined his palette to the essential vocabulary of red, black and white, while evoking in the viewer a general state of urgency and concern that immerses the narrative. This super-clean graphic sensibility is found not only in Peterson's work, but also in many other works. It tells the story of an artist permeated by a gaze whose own ultimate meaning is read by the viewer through the allegorical dynamics of the work.
The character cast has faces that are either masked - such as, eerily uniform, or bebe face, which adds to the confusion and makes it difficult to tell the difference between a real person and a fictional character in Peterson's work. Nothing realistic or necessarily contemporary moves away from the terrible things that are happening around us, but a fusion of the real and the fictitious.
Do not read the graphic reports that you may see on television or in the news - it is not exactly a caricature of violence, but it is not read that way either.
Peterson is a much-needed presence in the art world as an artist who is not afraid to show the uglier side of humanity. In hocus pocus, a naked woman is tied to a tree and stabbed on an acrylic screen by two armed men. It is disturbing, but it does not feel like what humanity is doing, it is the terror imposed on this particular figure. I was driven by some of Peterson's other works, such as his painting of a bound and shackled woman in a forest that seeks to impose terror on a particular figure.
An illustrative talent and a deep mastery of form do not harm his chances of success. No doubt this is why he was chosen to show his work in Shepard Fairey's exhibition "The Provocateurs," as well as his ability to paint an entire mural in just a few hours in his own studio in New York.
To better understand the shadows in Cleon's work, his vision speaks for itself: "I try not to be moralistic, I just paint the darkness I see in the sun itself. Peterson's paintings are strong and minimal, a result of years of collaborating with artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, David Hockney, and Andy Warhol.
It shows black humanoid figures who do brutal and violent things to a white humanoid figure, such as impale him with a sword, tie him up, torture him and cut off his head. These scenes are brutal, but not necessarily bloody, because Peterson has worked with many different kinds of people, from humanoids to animals, from animals to humans. Above all, however, it is the black-and-white images of his paintings full of shadows and shadows that are as fascinating as they are disturbing.
Peterson stresses that his murals were not conceived as street art, a discipline he clearly despises and has despised since its inception in the 1970s. As a former graphic designer, art has been reduced to the warrior figures you might see on classical Greek vases. Instead, these murals are about reconciling Peterson's confrontational vision with his paintings and creating a certain dynamic for the viewer.
These dystopian scenes of violence and demonstrations of power are intended to confront the viewer, but also reflect Peterson's own experiences as a human being.