Interview: Cleon Peterson Talks Depicting Society's Violence and Deviating From "The Rules" in His Art

We interviewed the artist and designer Cleon Peterson about his art and involvement in "The Provocateurs."

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Welcome to Art Provocateurs Week, in collaboration with Art Alliance, where we interview artists who are a part of the Shepard Fairey-curated "The Provocateurs" exhibition during Lollapalooza. Enter our contest for a chance to win free tickets to the exhibition or buy them here. The exhibition runs from July 31 to August 4 at Block 37 in Chicago.​​

Sometimes, you only need a few simple, repeated elements to move and impact a viewer. For the artist Cleon Peterson, these elements begin with the colors black, white, and the occasional fluorescent red or yellow.

Los Angeles-based Peterson uses this signature color scheme to create dissonant, violent, and anxiety-ridden images. With his recent exhibition, "End of Days" at New Image Art Gallery, and his close artistic relationship to Shepard Fairey, Peterson's loud work is also getting harder to ignore. 

His paintings graphically explore chaos, power struggles, and the human condition in a calculated set of shifting, figural lines. Sometimes the bodies are patterns floating amongst their own viscera in space. Other times, they are within the context of a city. Throughout, the lines and colors are always very clean. He narrates explosive scenes through characters representing authority and subject, individual and society. And though there is a lot of brutality, there's never any sign of death—just action-packed struggle and disorder. 

As an artist who's not afraid to show you the uglier side of humanity, Peterson is a much needed presence in our often overly comfortable society. This is undoubtedly why he has been chosen to show work in Shepard Fairey's "The Provocateurs" exhibition, and why he will be painting an entire mural in the Windy City this week, as well. His illustrative talent and deep mastery of form aren't hurting his chances of success, either. To better understand the "shadows" of his work, we spoke to Cleon about his vision. 

I think that the individual trumped all of society's rules. The work shows people acting outside the boundaries of convention and society.

You just had an exhibition at New Image Art Gallery. How did "End of Days" come about?

I've been working with New Image Art for years. It was just another show that they scheduled me to have; it's been years and years. I've known Marsea Goldberg, the gallery director, for a long time. She was over at my house one day when I was designing a book with her, and she saw a painting that I had done at grad school. She said, "I think it's a great painting, want to put it in a group show?" I basically put the painting in a group show, and a guy just bought it. One thing led to another, and I ended up showing with her and creating art to do in art shows with her.

The "End of Days" exhibition went really well. It's hard to gauge what's going on when you're the artist, but I'm always really proud when great friends and other artists show up to the opening. 


Most of your work depicts scenes of chaos and violence but are normally presented with a certain type of minimalism. How does working with a simple color scheme shape your expression of power struggles and brutality?  

I try to use colors that hit you in the gut emotionally—kind of dissonant colors, colors that almost personify aggression and violence. For some reason, to me, those colors do that on a gut level. It's not like you have to look at the piece and read it; it's very succinct. Just using three colors: black, florescent red, and white, is the quickest way to communicate that. People always talk about getting angry and seeing red. 

Your imagery is often described as "lawless" or "dystopic." Do these words describe the type of world your characters live in? 

I don't think it's lawless. I think that the individual trumped all of society's rules. The work shows people acting outside the boundaries of convention and society. And then there are other people who are acting for those laws. There are these policing agents who represent justice as the law is. It's as if to say, "What is law? What is right? What is wrong?" 

A lot of rules are established but not necessarily right or just; they instead support some kind of power structure that's been implemented by people who are in control.

Nietzsche focused a lot on the individual and how one can transcend society's structures and contexts. He was also a proponent of "life-affirmation," which embraces reality despite tragedy. Have you consciously applied Nietzsche's philosophy to your work or is it a coincidental connection?

I haven't studied his direct work, but his philosophy comes up in a lot of other places. At the baseline, what I believe in and apply in my own life is to be critical and figure out what is right and wrong on your own terms, even if that deviates from "the rules." A lot of rules are established but not necessarily right or just; they instead support some kind of power structure that's been implemented by people who are in control.

I feel like, in my past, I haven't been on the top end of things. I've been subjected to being labeled, running around on the streets as a drug addict, and being a criminal. I can understand that what people consider to be right and wrong can be very blurry. 


Would you call your work "hopeless" necessarily?

No, I think it's just a reflection of aspects in our world. It acts as more of a mirror, and people can have their own reactions. I don't have an agenda to start dissidence or get people to follow me. The images that I make are the same as images that are around us everyday, in film and in books. 

There's something about the artiness of art, where people think you have an obligation, as an artist, to project positivism and not be critical. But in my world, all the art I've always responded to works against that, is critical, and is a commentary on the status quo. 

Are the images you evoke with your paintings specific from your own life at all, or are they fiction? 

Yes, there are images of things that I've experienced in the paintings. But then there are also things that I've experienced through others, like through the media. There are some horrific things going on in the world. 

We're in a place that's very safe, so it's easy for us to disengage and push those things away from ourselves and our own personal experience. It's important for people to realize that all of these things happening in the world are the essence of what happens in human nature.

I never fit into the mainstream 'go work in a bank' kind of thing. I've always been a part of a subculture. On the fringe.

You designed skateboard graphics and logos in the '90s for brands like Foundation Skateboards and Pig Wheels. Would you say that the lifestyle around skateboarding influences your art? What are your ties to the skate community?  

I don't know. I was part of that culture even before I was designing skateboards. That goes back further to me growing up with my brother and both of us being out on the streets all the time and experiencing subculture. I never fit into the mainstream "go work in a bank" kind of thing. I've always been a part of a subculture. On the fringe.

You've also expanded your work onto the street, like the murals you did for the Katowice Street Art Festival in Poland and for BRUTAL at Lazarides. How does the experience differ for you in practice and in meaning?

I love painting big and making things that envelope the viewer. It's interesting to be able to paint what I think in a public space, because it's challenging stuff. My goal in making art isn't to make everyone like what I make. A lot of the time, when people put things up on the street, there's this political correctness. It goes through a group of people who are then going to squash your ideas and make them likable by everybody. So anytime I can put something on the street, it's really interesting for me, because it's not easy. 

I don't want to get myself into trouble [Laughs], but a lot of times I see street art as a way to gentrify neighborhoods—you know, up real estate pricing. But I think something like graffiti is destructive, and it comes more from the spirit that I like. It's not an advertisement or something signed off on by building owners or politicians. It's work that's not controlled. 


Tell us about working at Studio Number One. How did you get involved with Shepard Fairey? 

In 1997, I got out of jail, and I had no job. I was trying to get jobs at supermarkets down in San Diego, and nobody would hire me. I went over to Shepard's studio, because at that point, I was already an illustrator and designer. He basically gave me a desk to work at. We started working together a long time ago and have been working together ever since. I design his books and help design at the studio. That's another side of me, I design too. 

What was it like being a guest artist for OBEY?

I really like Shepard, and I really enjoy working with him. Working with the team at Studio Number One is natural. It's all within my world.

It seems like you've formed very organic relationships with people, and it's all been falling into place. 

Yeah, it's interesting, because I've been around a lot of these people for many years—Aaron Rose, Harmony Karine, and my brother, who is also an artist. I started making art when I was really young. I was in the hospital a lot as a kid, so it was something for me to do when I was sick all the time. I was doing it every single day by the time I was 15. That's the thing, Shepard and I have been doing art really seriously since we were young. It's almost like there's no other option. 

That seems like it explains your place in "The Provocateurs" exhibition, curated by Fairey. 

I'm going to be painting a mural down there [in Chicago], too. That's going to be really exciting. I have a few more paintings that I'm going to be showing in the space. I don't know what to expect, you know? Sometimes I just make the stuff and see what happens. 

What's on the horizon for you later this year?

I'll be in a summer group show at Jonathan LeVine Gallery. And I have the cover of Juxtapoz Magazine's October issue. I'm pretty excited about that.    



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