You can’t view Cleon Peterson’s art and not want to talk with him to inquisitively find out if he’s as disturbed as you consider he possibly might be. To some extent he is. Cleon has lived many experiences that a lot of us have not – his troubled past is certainly no secret. To another extent though, he is an intellectual father of three children and a busy artist who is trying to challenge the world with his violent scenes. He’s kind of dark and we like it – a dystopian Pieter Bruegel.
Cleon grew up surrounded by creative people. He and his brother (photographer Leigh Ledare) lived with their mother in a bed and breakfast she owned in Seattle, where theatre companies and dance troupes often stayed with them. “They stole all the towels in our house,” he remembers. “When you live in a place where it’s like a hotel and all the time there are people staying that you don’t know, it gets pretty crazy.” As a child he became very sick and spent a lot of time in hospital for asthma, which is why today he hates cats and cigarettes. Somewhere in this period he lost any spirit for the established school system and soon after began creating art.
Cleon moved to New York City in his twenties and life for him became a repetitive cycle of one daily goal: to get high. “You don’t let anything get in the way of that,” he told us. “When you’re a drug user out running around on the streets with no money, desperate and sick every day, things get sketchy. Everyone is desperate and no ones cares about anyone else.” So he learned quickly to play “the game” – getting over on people before they get over on you. “You hustle and you rob to get by. You live outside of the rules of society, and your ethics and morals adjust to your environment. In the beginning you feel guilt about what you’re doing to other people, but eventually you turn that off and become numb.”
It is a multi-sided motivator that helped Cleon dump his drug addiction: court orders, incarceration, strong resolve, and a job offer from Shepard Fairey. Among many things, disorder is a theme has since resonated with Cleon from this period and his childhood. We see it in the world he paints, a universe full of desperation. The law-enforcers are corrupt, the law-abiders are savage and the law-breakers are no different. His entire imagined world is an exaggeratedly two-dimensional crime scene of decapitated heads and puddles of blood where, in Cleon’s words, “ethics have been abandoned in favor of personal entitlement.”
Unsurprisingly this type of material often creates a bit of dialogue. A lot of people want to reject the darker side of things in life, says Cleon. “They have a reaction to my art because in a lot of people’s minds a piece of art is supposed to represent positive human ideals – things that are making the world a better place. And they don’t see difficult subjects as a way to create dialogue or talk about things that are complex, but they see them as: I buy this thing, thus it represents me, and I’m dark.”
In comparison to other types of media, however, what he paints is not so far out there. There are no more stab wounds than in a Quentin Tarantino film. Much less blood than a Stephen King novel. And the people that do get it, there is something that they understand – an affinity or an awareness of an honest truth that divulges that there’s a dark world in all of us. Cleon is just a little – or a lot – more attuned to it.
“What I enjoy doing is showing the darker side of humanity because I think that for some reason whatever is inside of me has always gravitated towards things that are kind of heavy or to show things in a way that is difficult.” As a young child walking through a museum it was the works of Larry Clark and Leon Golub that drew Cleon’s attention. “I love beautiful stuff too, but there’s a challenge that I like. Just being creative in general takes a lot of courage. The only time it’s great is when it’s kind of vulnerable and risky.”
Cleon’s technique is very clean. Stylistically, he is really just interested in the form and the best way to bring emphasis to that is to get the artworks as flat as he possibly can. They exist in only two or three color variations to avoid any potential complexities that a broader color palette may bring. “I’m trying to connect with people on an emotional basis,” he told us. “And if the color thing is very anxiety-ridden and in-your-face, then I feel like that expresses the emotional feeling that I want.”
These days life is another type of disorder, but the version that comes in the form of three young children. “I really enjoy having a family. I like being able to share my life with them and to watch the kids grow and live for themselves,” Cleon shared with us. “Having children has taught me that I’m not the center of the universe and that there is more to my life than what’s swimming around in my head. It’s allowed me to stop trying to make sense of my past and live in the present. I don’t regret anything I went through in the past. I embrace it and think that in some ways I can only appreciate the things I have now because I’ve known true pain.”
Last year in 2013, Cleon created a capsule collection with Los Angeles-based project and skate brand, The Quiet Life. The “Practice of Masters” line included 5-panel caps, bucket hats, tees, jumpers and hoodies and came about through a mutual friend. “My good friend Justin Van Hoy introduced me and Andy Mueller. I’d known about The Quiet Life and what Andy had been doing for years and jumped at the opportunity to work on the project.” The sold-out collection featured Cleon’s signature violence and clean technique and was his first collaboration with a fashion brand – a powerful statement of dark motives in a new medium.