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Cleon Peterson: "One person’s utopia is the other person’s hell."

Written by Alec Banks

Cleon Peterson exudes a laid-back vibe when you speak to him, as if he’s still feeling the soothing effects from a well-deserved vacation in a tropical paradise. As such, one might expect his fine art to reflect his easygoing demeanor. There should be calming, still-life, tranquil pools of water, and a cheery palette so candy-colored it could give someone a cavity if they felt inclined to give it a lick. Yet, when you lay eyes on one of Peterson’s paintings or sculptures, you get the sense that his even temperament doesn’t necessarily inform his unmistakable body of work.

Thematically, Peterson is interested in depicting violence, fear, aggression and the dynamics of power. His works are populated by armed men and women who can be interpreted as either perpetrator or victim, in subdued black, white and red tones. This allows him to illustrate chaos and carnage without losing control of his narrative intentions.

“I’m really about the way the painting functions on the surface and the interplay between forms and balance,” Peterson says of his limited color palette.

Drawing from historical fact, literary antiquities and the current state of the world — which he believes represents an ironical truth that happiness often comes at the brutal expense of others — the Los Angeles-based artist has positioned himself as a cultural conduit to life’s unfortunate paths, where lambs are more than often brought to the slaughter.

“Nobody’s out committing violence just to commit violence,” he says. “People are usually doing it for some kind of utopian reason. I feel like I’m actually painting reality. Maybe it’s not a reality that everybody is experiencing every day, but it’s out there, and people just don’t acknowledge it.”

Peterson credits his visual style and interest in darker themes to his ability to eliminate any self-editing during his studio practice. Absent of restraint, he’s able to make biting critiques about politics, school violence and the spoils of war.

“What I like about art is the freedom to break those barriers and go to a place that is free, where you’re not constraining yourself socially with rules that people outside are putting on you or that you’re putting on yourself,” he says. “I think that following that impulse was the best thing I ever did, because it allowed me to do something that was maybe different than what other people are doing. I think initially people responded to that stuff because it didn’t have that self-imposed editing.”

With a distinct visual language — and the commitment to exploring violence and power across a wide spectrum — Peterson’s work has notably been used by The New York Times, for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway show Carousel, and underneath the Eiffel Tower, where he became the first artist to paint a mural beneath the architectural landmark.

The latter — a 300-hour effort titled “Endless Sleep” — depicted protagonists Poliphili and Polia, from the 1499 novel Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (loosely translated as “Poliphilus’s struggle for love in a dream”) by Italian writer Francesco Colonna. While it was a departure from his more sinister works, it still showed off his commitment to exploring duality among humans and how differences create a divide among humankind.

“It couldn’t be overtly violent,” he admits. “But I think the Eiffel Tower is a place that’s a huge international symbol. It’s a place where everybody comes together, all cultures. A place where that’s an icon in the world. I thought that it was an interesting place to make this image. It’s people dancing, and then they kiss and there’s the darkness and the light. And then what Europe is going through in terms of immigration — I thought it was an appropriate image.”

Whereas documentary filmmakers and war photojournalists are often relied upon to depict global savagery, Peterson feels that it’s an underrepresented aspect in fine art.

“Everybody has their voice. And that’s my voice. One person’s utopia is the other person’s hell.”