Cleon Peterson is happy. No, really. The apocalyptic plague of blood and violence that unfolds in his art notwithstanding, the artist himself is actually in a pretty great place right now. Over the years, he has had a series of solo exhibitions at New Image Art, the latest of which, "End of Days," is on view through April 16, and both continues and expands on his ongoing depiction of a kind of parallel underworld where every bad thing happens all the time. The truth is, Peterson doesn't see this as a parallel world at all, but rather as a knowing panorama of a place he knows personally all too well. "I paint a reality that not everyone experiences but that is certainly out there," he says. "I have been there. Stay away!"
Peterson was a bit of a child art prodigy when he was growing up in Seattle, later embarking on a career in indie design (especially skateboards) in San Diego before eventually landing in L.A., working as a designer with the OBEY family of companies, getting married and starting a family, and experiencing a solid growth in the success of his personal art leading to sold-out shows, a fan base that includes rock stars, critics, and major collectors, and a museum presence. But somewhere in the middle-past there, things went really off the rails for Peterson, and he found himself in a very dark place in body and spirit -- a place where humanity forgets itself and becomes monstrous, even as evil-doers are often themselves victims of circumstance; where morality becomes relative to say the least; and where no one ever thinks they will end up. This hellscape from which he once fled is the world he depicts in his art -- a world that is both a metaphor for human nature, and all-too-accurate portrait of some very bad neighborhoods.
"The cityscapes are based in true, personal stories of drug addiction and life in the streets of New York City in the 1990s. living through those experiences made me interested in ideas about the Other in our society -- ideas of the deviant, the outcast, and the power plays that happen within that world. Morals and ethics are flexible in a place like that, a hell on earth. It's incremental when you're in there. No one belongs there. Compromising your morals doesn't happen all in one day!" Now extrapolate that dystopian inertia to the world at large, where we are all at war with everybody all the time, and even with ourselves, and one man's insurgent is another's freedom-fighter and inequality is more pernicious than ever, and you start to get a sense of what Peterson is trying to tell us.
Despite the specific iconography he culls from his own memory, you can tell by the hyper-stylized figures and schematic, sometimes minimal landscapes that the artist is comfortable with the viewer reading their own ultimate meaning into the work in an allegorical dynamic. In fact his super-clean graphic sensibility exists in stark contrast to the volatile, horrifyingly graphic content. Perhaps drawing on his years of success in graphic-design mode, he refined his palette to an essential vocabulary of red, black, and white to induce a general state of urgency and anxiety in the viewer before diving into the narrative. Similarly, the cast of characters have faces that are mask-like and uncannily uniform in their smoothness, which adds to the confusion by making it almost impossible to tell whether the roles of victim and aggressor reflect justice or pandemonium, murder or revenge.
The Boschian, Bruegel-esque parade of desperation, horror, mayhem, and pain resolves itself like a tableau, part history painting, part cave-painting, part classical frieze, across an invisible grid that gives a subliminal order to the work like a pattern behind the chaos, an invisible armature that holds the skewed perspective together and countermands the volatility of the scene and action. The large scale works are like environments you can almost walk into, big paintings with a museum-ready presence; while the small ones have a flavor of important artifact. In general there is a hint of antiquity in the Greek and Roman sense that permeates the details in certain motifs, of which Peterson is more than aware. "Some of the most evil art in history has revived the classics; and so has some of the most progressive." In the cityscapes there are unexplained negative spaces, abstract white shapes that are not quite objects, which divert attention but do not obscure content. They give the viewer a place to breathe in the oppressive picture. "I like to work as minimally as possible rather than additively. I like to let the surface paint itself, and just let it be the color, the air, the space -- let it be a painting."
The work is about 5 percent funny, but you have to work for it. For example, take the Miltonian executioner in one painting (the artist's favorite) whose jaunty pose of charming pride in his bloody trophy, held aloft, plus the fact that his loincloth looks a lot like tighty whitey underpants, is winsome despite itself. When asked about the rather impressive variety in shoes and fashionable outfits sported by the urban folks, Peterson admits that he had a hard time trying to put them all in different outfits, so his young daughter helps with that part. And he also admits to a taste for "over the top Schadenfreude." Reading the texts that accompany his exhibitions, it soon becomes clear there's a wicked sense of gallows humor at work. For example: "Whatever days have ended, they have been succeeded by a new age of barbarism, with clear winners and losers. The triumphant take no trophies, apart from the occasional severed head, but the defeated have clearly lost more than their viscera -- they have lost all semblance of control, dignity, strength and, most of all, hope. But not all is lost, nor is it over. If that sounds like the good news, well, it's not."
New Image Art director, and OG Peterson supporter Marsea Goldberg says sometimes people freak out when they come into the gallery. "I'll say this, most people who like it are people who have experienced or witnessed it themselves. If I could only tell you who some of his early collectors were! In the beginning maybe, it appealed to a certain kind of taste, but now, everyone is on board. People are getting it. There's an appeal and a repulsion. Maybe it validates how they already see the world, and that's why they are moved by it, they see themselves and are complicit and might even feel compassion." When it comes to how people respond to the work, Peterson is sanguine. "I like it when people hate it, too. People need to see the evil they are capable of."
Check out our video on Melrose Avenue, which serves as a center for local graffiti artists, including MEAR ONE, AXIS, DYTCH, and LYNK, since the 1980s.
Top Image: Cleon Peterson, "Only After Dark," 16 x 16" Acrylic on wood panel.
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