The Art of Violence, Part Two: Cleon Peterson

The Art of Violence, Part Two: Cleon Peterson

Part two of a two-part series of interviews on the exploration of violence through art. For part one with Abigail Goldman, click here.

For many, violence shocks, frightens and excites people out of the daily milieu; a thrill only witnessed from a third-person perspective, or felt vicariously through popular media. But for others, like Los Angeles-based artist Cleon Peterson, violence serves as context for experience, framing the perspective on an unforgiving world in which violence ceases to be novelty, instead becoming familiarity.

Through hulking brutes carrying out senseless acts of bloodlust, Peterson’s depictions of physical savagery channel a kind of violence that is emotional and social. While serving as personal explorations of animosity, his works simultaneously address humanity’s inevitable, perhaps innate, propensity for the inhumane – and he fears that it’ll only get worse. Presented by OVER THE INFLUENCE as part of Art Stage Singapore 2017, we speak with Peterson about the personal turmoil that cultivates his distinctive aesthetic.



Your artwork translates a lot of pain, cruelty and unforgiving violence. Where does all of this stem from? 

My perspective on the world stems from my own past experiences. I grew up in a f*cked up family and spent a lot of time out of the house on the streets. After that, I became a heroin addict and eventually wound up in jail. When you’re living this kind of life, violence and crime are everyday occurrences that influence your perspective forever. As I transitioned out of that, I became more aware of what was going on in a broader context. A decade of war and terrorism began to creep into my psyche. This is where my art comes from.


Some of your works read like they’ve been taken from the inside of an eons-old cave, while others present a more modern representation of brutality – the one thing that remains the same is the loss of humanity. What are your thoughts on this?

I move between and reference different archetypal and historical settings in my work to reference power, fear and otherness, and to reinforce the idea that violence and brutality are never-ending aspects of our human condition. For the last 10 years in the United States, there’s been a cultural amnesia of avoidance and denial – a way of not recognising our role in the world and avoiding responsibility. I think that most people have put the blinders on with a general utopian optimism – a thinking that as time moves forward, society will naturally become more progressive and humane. We are just now, in our politics, paying the price for this avoidance.


Your earlier works feature figures with distinguishing features (e.g. hair, attire, gender), but your later works seem to depict brutish figures that are stripped of their identity or anything that distinguishes them as individuals. Was this a conscious progression? 

I’ve been simplifying my forms to exaggerate power and movement. I like to simplify to capture the essence of the gestures and emotions that I'm trying to communicate. 


"To me, art's true purpose is to reveal truth and claim that other people share these feelings that I have. In that way, the dark world I paint is a vehicle for empathy and humanity."


Similarly, your later works seem to be removed from any situational context, while your earlier works appear to be tied to places and times. Was there a reason for obscuring this context?

Sometimes I concentrate on just a relationship between figures without them set in an environment. This just means that the painting is about the relationship, not the place. I suppose I rely on the viewer in these paintings to project context.


When visual art such as yours depicts violence, the viewer tends to search for some kind of deeper meaning, perhaps even confronting their own predilections for cruelty – but when it’s presented in TV, films or video games, the reaction can be likened to a pornographic gratuity. As an artist, what are your thoughts on the distinction between such media?

Artwork has a special power. Ideally, it’s a vehicle for introspection, a pause in voyeurism, and a place where one can critically engage in thought about how the work to relates to life – whether it represents ideals or clashes against them. The great thing about good work, a thing that I think many people miss, is that it doesn't just have to represent beauty and positive aspects of culture; it can also be a critique and give us perspective on the ugliness within us all. To me, art’s true purpose is to reveal truth and to claim that other people share these feelings that I have. In that way, the dark world I paint is a vehicle for empathy and humanity.


As a father of three children, has your artistic outlook changed or gravitated toward a less-violent narrative with the growth of your family?

No, I believe that children are smarter than people give them credit, and should be given respect and not be sheltered from expression or reality. Art is a way to create dialogue. If you really think about this question, you realise how stupid it is. Should we not teach children history? Aren't we bound to repeat our mistakes if we don't educate? Should we not let them read classic literature or study mythology? The same subjects I address in my paintings are represented all around us, if you just open your eyes.



You’ve previously spoken about the undesirability for viewers to see your art as a form of advertising. With such an identifiable style and collaborations on branded merchandise, do you fear your work will ever be perceived by the public as something that they feel the need to buy into?

I see advertising as an act of creating artificial demand, selling people garbage they don't need. I see what I do as a way to get what I make out to the public and work outside of the traditional gallery and institutional constraints, which tend to monopolise and limit accessibility. Artists have been trying to make their art and ideas more accessible for a long time. Dürer, Rembrandt, Picasso, Haring – they all did this. It’s not a new phenomenon. 


Has the world become a more violent, unforgiving place? Are we already living in a dystopia similar to those depicted in your art?

Sadly, it looks like we may be headed in that direction. The U.S. is in a state of anxiety right now with Trump being elected into office. The world is becoming more right wing, fearful and nationalistic. I’m worried about the present and future.



Cleon Peterson’s works are presented by Over The Influence at Art Stage Singapore, Booth D3 at Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre from January 12 to 15. For ticketing and more information, visit


Text Trent Davis

Images Over The Influence