Cleon Peterson Talks His First Detroit Solo Show

Lead photo by Jerry Buttles All other photos are courtesy of Library Street Collective

Cleon Peterson’s work is a front row seat to a theater of cruelty. It wakes us up with a jolt—nerves first, then heart. In it, you can almost hear the rhythmic panting of fear, feel the hot, squalid breathe of injustice. The work is less of an exercise in aesthetic and more an act of confrontation, an intervention in expectation. For Peterson, it seems, the barbarity, the depravity are where the creative oxygen is.

For the first time, the globally recognized artist will bring his monochromatic work and hell-broke-loose narratives to Detroit. His solo show POISON, opening this coming Saturday, August 29, at Library Street Collective, features more than 20 new acrylic-on-canvas paintings, as well as premiere explorations in porcelain sculpture.

“This show is about revenge, which is a current of poison running through our culture and other cultures around the world,” Peterson says. “It’s often a motivation for war and justification for punishment; it’s a social impulse that is destructive and easy to become complicit in.”

We recently shared an email exchange with Peterson as he prepped for POISON. No stranger to the weight of personal darkness and anguish, the L.A.-based artist spoke frankly (and refreshingly) about the social contract of “goodness” and his love of uncomfortable truths.



Mass Appeal: It seems that a lot of artists feel it necessary to provide a positive pat-on-the-back, an everything-is-gonna-be-alright hair tousle with their work. Thankfully, then there’s you. Do you think that an artist needs to provide resolution of any kind? Is there a certain danger in comforting the viewer, offering a false sense of safety?

Cleon Peterson: I think there’s an unwritten social pressure to be conservative and politically correct in painting today. Artists want their work to be a commodity that appeals to everyone: positive, life-affirming, and saccharine. It’s this neo-hippy utopian thing where they live in a modernist house, do yoga every day, and solipsistically navel-gaze into their problems of privilege while not having empathy for real dread and crisis in the world. To me, this doesn’t reflect the real world we live in, and the art I like always addresses these uncomfortable truths.

So that’s the stuff that resonates with you most when experiencing others’ work? When it’s a punch to the gut? Are the eliciting of questions and a sense of discomfort in the viewer then more intriguing/fruitful/eye-opening to you in your own practice as well?

Yeah, I like work that is difficult to like. As an artist, I don’t think there could be anything more satisfying than making someone love something that’s so easy to hate. In a way, I’m asking people to embrace the darkness and evil within us all. Recognizing that this darkness is important because it creates empathy to the “other” by putting us in both the victim’s and the perpetrator’s shoes. Historically, people that don’t recognize this part of themselves often act the most inhumanly.

There’s this great Hitchcock quote that always comes to mind when I experience your stuff: “A glimpse into the world proves that horror is nothing other than reality.”

That’s great and totally true. The only way fictional horror can work is because real horrors are around every corner in our everyday lives.



For as much as people must constantly ask you about the chaos, the violence and the brutality in the work, are you not ever perplexed that no one seems to ask other artists why they opt not to explore it? Why it is exactly they opt to skip over the full range of what humans are capable of?

I’m sure their work just reflects the lives they’ve lived and how they see themselves in the world. I think I focus on this stuff because of the way I grew up and some of the personal struggles I’ve had in life. By making work like this, you don’t create a comfortable way of life. You need to be in a certain headspace all the time and you put yourself out there to answer difficult questions and not be liked.

“Goodness” is rare, laudable and noble: Do you think it more the exception than the rule?

No, I think there is a pervasive goodness everywhere. People are always good to other members of their own group and it’s the social agreement we are all a part of on the surface, but a lot of terrible things have been done in the past with a veneer or intent of “goodness.” The problem is that everyone is trying to get “ goodness” for themselves and sometimes it comes at a great cost to the people that are in their way.

Is your work, particularly the public walls, but the studio work as well, an intervention of sorts or an interruption maybe—in the status quo of expectation?

Yes, I’m always surprised when I get to paint a public wall because it breaks out of that  “goodness” social contract we’re all subconsciously a part of. But I also like painting in public because it works in the same way as a lot of political graffiti. I admire works as a way for the philosophical “others” voice to be heard.



What does it mean to you to be showing at this moment in your creative evolution in Detroit?

I love the city and its history. I lived there for two years while in graduate school at Cranbrook. In a way it feels like I’m coming home.

You have incorporated sculpture for this show. Was it a natural progression for the paintings to leap off of canvas and be explored in real space?

I’ve always wanted to make sculpture, but never had the resources to make it happen. To me, it feels like a natural transition. My paintings are extremely flat, but in compositional terms are all about positive and negative space and balance. The starkness and compositions translate really well into the 3-D compositions. I’m really proud of the sculptures; in the future I’d love to make some monumental pieces to live in public space.

Do you create easily? Is it more of a battle of starts and stops?

It’s all about dedicating time. I don’t really have creative crises or get stuck. I just chip away at it every day and then, in the end, am surprised  when everything comes together. The most rewarding thing is when you get away from the work for a few weeks then hang a show and think, “How the fuck did all this happen?”

Your work is narrative in nature. You’re telling stories within an art historical context, a cultural context, and on the personal tip as well. Can you talk about working with that doubleness and tripleness of layering of narratives?

Well, I think everyone with every story told works in these realms. You always hear artists explain that what they’re making isn’t autobiographical, even when you can tell that their own personal life stories are in the work. I think by saying that a work is fiction, people protect themselves from personal criticism. But, all of life, culture, and history is game for the artist to speak about and interject themselves in. Sometimes the lines between reality and fiction get blurry.


As the work progresses, you seem to be zeroing in on the “shadows” devoid of setting and even shed of their uniforms. It is almost as if in your examination you are boiling it all down to an essence—a potent concentrate—of the pathology of power.

Yes, the paintings in the Poison show are simple, primal gestures, and I tried to make the work as direct as possible.

Playwright and poet Lemon Andersen has said that upon his release from jail it was art that took him in, that art doesn’t discriminate. Art doesn’t care if you have a record. It just cares whether or not the work is good. What was your experience like trying to secure employment once you were released? Were you drawn back to creating out of psychic necessity, as well as practical necessity? Did you feel like you had other options?

What Andersen said is interesting and something I’ve thought a lot about in past months. Art is the forum where you can express anything and live outside social norms. In essence, you can be yourself in this realm and be respected for having a different perspective on the world. I’ve been thinking about why people like what I do and how they use it in their lives. I think people all have dark thoughts and feelings about the world and that by expressing this stuff publicly it affirms that we’re not all alone in our thinking. Art lets us all be human; it lets us drop the stifling pretense of respectability, conformity and this weird drive we all have to fit into this SOMA-tized culture of “goodness” you spoke of before. In terms of being in jail and getting work, yeah, I had a hard time getting a normal job. But in the end, I think it was a good thing, because I wouldn’t have been able to function doing anything but making art.



POISON: A Solo Show by Cleon Peterson at Library Street Collective in Detroit, Michigan will be on view August 29 through October 15, 2015.

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