blood sport

words: felipe delerme

art: cleon peterson

Cleon Peterson’s artwork is confrontational. It consists primarily of hulking shadows brutalizing one another. They march with prehistoric weaponry, furious at the world they inhabit. They are chiseled and nearly nude, not entirely dissimilar to classical depictions of Roman gladiators or early Olympians. Their bodies stoop and lunge with kinetic athleticism. The work feels like a window into a darkly violent era, but it is less inspired by the ancient past than by Peterson’s personal reaction to the present. Whatever it is that his figures are fighting against, they exact their vengeance with an absolute sense of duty, if not glee.

Peterson grew up in Seattle in the ’70s, and his interests had more or less petrified by the time he reached puberty. “I was into drugs, skateboarding, and art,” he says. “Three things.” His older brother was a talented skater, and after dropping out of school in ninth grade and obtaining his GED, Peterson followed him to skating events around the country.

Peterson ended up going to college in Seattle (only to drop out again) before falling back on his artistic talents, drawing designs for skate decks by hand. When he found the money unsatisfactory for the time the work demanded, he returned to school, enrolling in a graphic design program at Pasadena’s Art Center of College and Design before going on to obtain his MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. In the mid-2000s, Peterson began working as creative director of Swindle, the art magazine founded by Shepard Fairey, while simultaneously exploring the world of fine art, and was soon showing at galleries all over the world. He is now based in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and three young children.

VJ: Were you always interested in art?

CP: Since I was super young. That was what I was good at. I wasn’t very good at school—I had one direction, which was art. I had a really hard time in school, but I was into art and skateboarding. My brother was a really good skateboarder, and every summer [my brother and I] would go to Chicago or New York or California. We were all over the place. I dropped out of school on the second day of ninth grade, and even before that I was only doing three classes a day since seventh grade. I would go home and make art by myself. I think skateboarding and the subculture was a really creative place to be. Doing a sport where you’re independently making it happen—it’s different than being a team player. It breeds a creative person.

When I was doing skateboards it was like ’94. I had barely learned the computer at all. I would draw type around a circle by hand. I had a friend that had a computer and I remember he printed out a circle so I could draw type on the circle, and I was like, ‘Whoa this is dope. It makes it so much easier!’

But it’s a hard business to make money in—I had to figure out a way to make more money, so I went to study graphic design. But there was something about corporate design that didn’t feel like it was for me. It just didn’t feel right, so I went to Cranbrook, which had a way more avant garde approach to design.

VJ: How did you transition into fine art?

CP: When I was at Cranbrook, I was designing a book for this lady named Marsea Goldberg who owns a gallery. She came over to my house and saw the paintings and was like, “I could sell those. Let me put them in a show.” Then Jeffrey Deitch put them in his show called Mail Order Monsters, and then Art Basel. I had only made nine paintings up to that point, and I thought, ‘Oh, maybe it’s time for me to get back into doing paintings again.’ The whole time I’d been making books, doing a lot of creative stuff, but at the root of it I wanted to make art again.

VJ: A lot of your art features the same characters. Where do they come from?

CP: I call them shadows. They just morphed into the form they are over the years. I try to draw people with power: oppressive, strong, and angry, those kinds of attributes. There are a couple different scenarios that I’ve got going on. There’s a whole series I did with aristocrats being taken down by shadow figures. I feel like it’s justice being taken out on these people.

VJ: Why such a limited color palette?

CP: I tried studies with other colors and it never communicates the aggression or the fear—the kind of straightforwardness that I want to have. And I think primarily my paintings are about space and balance, and the emotion that’s in the characters. I want to be as direct as I can in terms of getting those things across. Being minimal with colors is more effective. I used to paint with a lot of different colors. It’s just that when you get so many colors, it gets this illustrative [quality], or it communicates “party time.”

VJ: Your work conjures up images of ancient warriors. How does that history of combat influence you?

CP: This is a tradition of making art that’s throughout all cultures. There’s Greek culture, Japanese culture, Persian art—there’s just something that runs through the work of all different cultures. I love historic work, but it’s not stuff that I would reference when I came up with my style. There’s a parallel between it and my work, and then sometimes I play with history. Sometimes I’ll draw sculptures—these things are referencing past civilizations.

VJ: What does the brutality represent to you?

CP: I think it’s an aspect of our culture that’s at the forefront, like what’s going on in our world right now. As Americans we’re watching it in the media all the time. I think we’ve created a situation where violence is an everyday event in our world. So that’s what I concentrate on.

VJ: So it’s political?

CP: Yeah, exactly. I’ve never felt like I was in that privileged class. I always felt like I was in some other subculture that didn’t ever fit in. I still feel that way deep down. When you’re not part of whatever system—the privileged class or whatever—you’re never going to be part of that. There are so many barriers put in your way to the good life—I think it’s natural to be angry about that.

There’s catharsis in the work. A tool that I’ve used making art is: it’s good to be angry about things. It’s a good motivator. I’ve used the anger that I feel and embedded it in my work.

VJ: Do you ever create with the intention of bringing joy, or making someone happy?

CP: I don’t feel like I have to address that because I think there are a lot of other people making smiley face paintings in the world. That’s a trend right now, doing emoji paintings. Forty fucking people doing emoji paintings right now.

VJ: Do you show your children your artwork?

CP: Yeah sure. I don’t think they should be sheltered from things. I think there’s a strange culture of hypocritical political correctness in the United States, especially when it comes to raising children. I think one of the things my art exposes is what’s really going on in the world. The violence that’s going on all around us, people are almost in this cultural amnesia—they avoid owning that. I looked back at a bunch of drawings from when I was maybe four years old. I used to draw these battle scenes underwater with James Bond figures, with them fighting with harpoons. I guess it was a theme I’ve drawn since I was little.

I think it’s just honest, actually. I don’t think it’s a radical idea. People try to pretend like these things don’t exist to their children. But children aren’t stupid. You should respect that they are individuals. I don’t think they should be exposed or put in situations that are too complex or problematic to them, but at the same time I think they can be exposed to the ideas that are in my paintings, or on every TV show that they watch every single day.

VJ: Do you foresee a point when your work might move away from violent themes?

CP: There’s this power that art has, that if people like it or buy it, it’s because they think that it represents something about themselves. If it’s a violent piece, that means that if I hang it on my wall, I must be pro-violence or something. Which is kind of strange to me. People don’t do that with say, fiction writing, or the movies they watch, or anything else, but that’s a good thing. It means that art has that power. It’s got a different kind of power than other kinds of entertainment that people take in.