Cleon Peterson, Info Wars, 2018. Photo by Aaron Farley. Courtesy of the artist and Over the Influence.
Cleon Peterson, Woman, 2018. Photo by Aaron Farley. Courtesy of the artist and Over the Influence.
Cleon Peterson’s paintings exorcise demons both personal and political. In a bold, graphic style, he depicts men beating each other; deviants walking Los Angeles streets; and Donald Trump kissing a prostitute in a hotel suite (while another prostitute urinates behind them). His clean line and accessible style—reminiscent of both street art and advertising illustration—contrasts with his gruesome, messy scenes.
Yet Peterson’s paintings also manifest a cartoonish absurdity. “There’s violence, but it’s turned up to 11. It’s tongue-in-cheek,” he told Artsy in advance of the opening of his latest exhibition, “Blood & Soil,” on view at Los Angeles’s Over the Influence gallery through August 5th.
Adam Lerner, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver, which recently mounted an exhibition of Peterson’s work, admires the artist’s contrast of extreme brutality with the perfection, beauty, and rigor of his compositions. If some viewers take issue with the subject matter and its apparent perpetuation of such savage imagery, Lerner disagrees. “We want our artists to show us what they have inside them. We can’t go back and tell them we only want it if it’s sweet,” he said. Peterson isn’t “supporting violence,” explained Lerner, but is instead portraying over-the-top carnage that is “clearly archetypal, not real.”
Born in Seattle in 1973, Peterson took a winding, fraught path to becoming an artist. Around age 17, he became addicted to heroin. “I’d been drinking and smoking pot and doing drugs since I was really young,” he explained. “But when I found heroin, I knew that it was my thing. I just dove right in.”
As the addiction progressed, Peterson lost stable housing, and friends and family also succumbed to the drug (a few years ago, his own sister died as a result of heroin abuse). For a while, he was living out of his car in San Diego, often in jail for drug possession. “Once you go to jail, you just keep going back to jail,” he said. “That’s why I always felt disconnected, actually, from any kind of politics or anything else. I always felt like an outsider.”
Meanwhile, Peterson’s brother, Leigh Ledare, dealt with the pair’s haunting domestic past in his own provocative artwork: He began photographing their boundary-pushing mother in the nude and having sex with young boyfriends (the series began when she opened the door for Leigh while naked). He also photographed a strung-out Peterson. The painter has a sanguine attitude about his unconventional family. Though he says that he grew up in a “harsh world,” he also acknowledges that he’s doing his own thing; his mother’s doing hers; and his brother’s doing his…………….