An interview with Cleon Peterson on his memorable art exploring power dynamics in contemporary society

Cleon Peterson's memorable paintings explore power dynamics in contemporary society

Cleon Peterson : Unveiling Truth Through Art

In this illuminating interview, we delve into the mind of acclaimed artist Cleon Peterson. His powerful work challenges societal norms and embraces uncomfortable truths. From the role of art as a medium for unflinching expression to the state of the contemporary art scene, Cleon Peterson shares insights into his creative process, the abuse of power, the impact of modern news, and the intersection of art with technology. Join us as we explore the depths of Peterson’s artistic philosophy and the urgent messages he seeks to convey in a world hungry for meaning.

Cleon Peterson, It’s a pleasure to discuss your powerfully moving and memorable work. Having listened to your interviews and read artistic statements I’ve quickly realized that you are a maverick who holds truth as a higher good, but also that you are one who seeks to “speak” honestly about subjects which are usually avoided by society, these being topics that once faced could improve the world if taken seriously. What is it about art as a communication vehicle that permits your unflinching freedom of expression?

Art has special powers. When it is good, resonating with our innate understanding of what is good, it delves deep into the soul, forging a transcendent connection by exposing the innermost aspects of our being: our hopes and dreams, as well as our fears and regrets. Ideally, it serves as a space where we can liberate ourselves from the constraints of societal norms, enabling us to perceive the world from a fresh perspective, challenge our preconceptions, and express whatever makes each of us distinct. 

While there are all kinds of work out there that validate our human experience, what draws me in are those pieces that challenge me or stretch my boundaries, defying my comfort zone and expectations. These works, like magic tricks, ultimately reveal surprises and unveil universal truths that unite us. Being an artist is like being afflicted by a psychic curse. The poor ego is constantly up and down, one moment confident, the next in doubt, continually carrying around this strange compulsion to make sense of the world and then express those thoughts in form.

Cleon Peterson's memorable paintings explore power dynamics in contemporary society
Cleon Peterson's memorable paintings explore power dynamics in contemporary society

Narrative is important in your mode, much art today is made strictly as polite accessory, or is an artificially pumped investment container no matter its ugliness or trite superficiality, or is a thing catering to entrenched often worn power structures made for purposes to sell insignificant products to raving consumers &c,. This becomes a malady stealing from the world culturally because of the deprivation to challenge it normalizes, but also arts lack of greater message. What is your view on the state of art today in general? And, how can its pessimism conjuring aspects (one such being its greater meaninglessness) be corrected?

Media and money have hijacked our values, and we are slowly becoming alienated from what makes us human. This post-modern dilemma reflects a shift where real-life experiences are exchanged for consumption and desires. Synthetic representations of virtue and destruction are supplanting authenticity and experience. We’ve transitioned from active participants in our own lives to become voyeurs and passive observers. 

It’s crucial to acknowledge that much of what we encounter today, from the news we consume to the algorithms governing our social media feeds, are constructed around consumerist principles designed to capture our attention and promote unnecessary products. Superficially appealing, these constructs lack substantial depth. Our gradual isolation, loneliness, frazzled lifestyles, unfulfillment, and diminished self-awareness have left us overly dependent on these digital realms. 

We all recognize that online, we present idealized fake personas. The art marketplace echoes this consumerist trend as content and historical context fade away and disappear. Now, we are left with shortcut reinterpretation commodities with the sole purpose of quenching our thirst to fill the gaping hole we feel in our lives with something to buy. What concerns me is that the allure of acquiring things wanes eventually, making room for something darker you don’t need to buy, a thing you can experience directly through the media, the more rewarding elements of rage, sex, violence, cruelty, and destruction. 

Slowly, this bleeds into our online social connections, which are primarily emotional, rooted in jealousy, cynicism, desire, grievance, and outrage. People rally around destructive ideologies, forsaking their morals and sense of right and wrong to belong. Society as a whole faces significant challenges. Ultimately, if we fail to invest in developing our lives and shaping our narratives, we risk being unduly influenced by the overwhelming digital landscape.

Cleon Peterson's memorable paintings explore power dynamics in contemporary society
Cleon Peterson's memorable paintings explore power dynamics in contemporary society

You create as a form of catharsis. Your characters usually deal with violence and abuses of authority or the results of the chaotic social order. What do you think it is about power that leads people to its abuse instead of using it for good? How might said abuses, which seem a natural branch of the human drive, be resolved?

I create my work to understand myself and explore my potential for darkness. People who have the drive for extreme tyrannical power are a unique breed. Power is a precious and challenging commodity to obtain. Often, you get it at the expense of others, and once you have it, there’s a constant awareness of the potential to lose it due to external events or adversaries you’ve encountered along the way.

This awareness can breed paranoia, prompting the need to stage grand displays to assert dominance. It’s easy to imagine how this situation could lead to isolation and instability. This may seem extreme, but it’s relatable because everyday life often presents situations structured in a similar way. Even those we see as attaining power through just social and political struggles do so at the expense of others, given the perpetual disagreements in our world.

Ultimately, the most harmonious way to live together in peace involves sharing moral and social ideals and having a system that allows us to navigate our differences civilly. We must also accept that life is inherently unfair, unequal, and sometimes unjust but that still, within these social limitations, we can all exercise power and freedom without a moral foundation based on destruction.

Cleon Peterson's memorable paintings explore power dynamics in contemporary society
Cleon Peterson's memorable paintings explore power dynamics in contemporary society

Propaganda is a topic of discussion in our age because news and media are produced by anyone at any time now making figuring out what is true a task that not many are equipt to do. Your work plays with stark contrasts like Soviet Agitprop, and uses colors of warning: white, read, black and yellow which are found in nature to tell one that a reptile is dangerous, but this also serves as a way to gain immediate attention. What is your view on modern news, seeing it’s a topic you embrace? Does your art wish to inform new narratives? If so, from a 380 foot view of your oeuvre, what have you sought to tell the world?

In 2016, I presented a show called “Blood and Soil.” The exhibition addressed the public’s shift to authoritarianism in the United States and the psychic violence that enveloped us in the rhetoric and actions surrounding the election—the notion of “truth” and our tendency to believe content that entertains and reinforces our preconceptions. The exhibition featured a painting called “Pissers II.” This painting depicted Trump’s escorts pissing on his bed. I was apprehensive about including the image in the show because I worried that one day, it might be proven false, making me appear like an idiot. 

However, I had a disheartening realization about how the media functions today. Whether a story is true or not doesn’t matter. What counts is the weaponization or instrumentalization of content, its impact on viewers, and its simple existence in the news cycle. Even if something didn’t happen, it can feel emotionally “true” to the public and, through the feeling, be “true.”  Emotional truth is the deal with the devil we entered into a long time ago. Traditionally, propaganda is a devious agent in power trying to influence a cynical public to view the world through a conspiratorial lens. 

What we are dealing with now is different. It’s a mass of amoral chaos agents acting in self-interest. Everyone has become a brand or content creator and adopted an instrumentalist methodology, which has seeped into every aspect of our lives—people, some media savvy, some not, have divided on tribal lines, baiting one another to elicit reactions acted out in a real-life game space with no accountability or consequences.

I only saw it in politics initially, but now, this exploitation has expanded into consumerism and identity. People feeling alienated and without personal utility have traded in developing real connections and self-worth for the look and feel of human connection by defining themselves in opposition and destroying one another in culture wars that have the look of progress but, in the end, just become meaningless blips is the fog of information overload.

Cleon Peterson's memorable paintings explore power dynamics in contemporary society
Cleon Peterson's memorable paintings explore power dynamics in contemporary society

As for style, your mark making is signature, and does convey a design aesthetic, but it’s also so personal and characteristic that it competes with Leger, having some echoes of Jacob Lawrence, but also plays with form and balance and pattern alike to Escher etc. This intrigues me due to your continuity of formal qualities but also how your aim breaches limits held by said others, this is to say, you go places socio-culturally that they possibly wouldn’t have predicted (like comparing the rebellion of Jazz era Classical music re-contextualization to say Gangster rap). Do you view your work as being in conversation with the past, and if so, what value or place does art history hold for you?

Unfortunately, I don’t control where I fit into the grand historical narrative, and if I did, I’m sure we’d all be in trouble. The work plays off the past, echoing archetypal narratives and forms. It’s old-fashioned; frankly, I don’t know if it’s anything new or at this point if i even need to bother myself with that pressure. I fit into a continuum in dialog with all our past and present stories and dreams—a sponge and, at times, an empath. Ultimately, all I want is to have some utility here and feel connected, vital, and alive. 

Cleon Peterson's memorable paintings explore power dynamics in contemporary society
Cleon Peterson's memorable paintings explore power dynamics in contemporary society

Social media and new tech is a topic with Dystopian and Utopian essences. On one hand, Social Media has connected world audiences to creators instantly in ways never possible, but also, the world seems fragmented because of digital media’s requirements for us to be always in character and “on”. AI has similar concerns, it has the power to replace artists all together or even steal styles while simultaneously making our work easier. What views do you have about techs benefits and determines?

In these times of existential angst, global warming, and substantial social changes, humans seek a savior in technology to rescue us from ourselves. Both the tech progress and fear mythology elicit an eye-roll from me. AI may be able to generate art-like creations, but our essential endeavor is, in a spiritual sense, a collective effort in which humans share their stories. 

I’d suggest we be wary of tech shortcuts and re-invest in a return to a fundamental humility intertwined with a simple “treat others as you would like to be treated” ethos. Manifest more intimate connections, and recognize that our attention spans cannot sustain thousands of relationships devoid of accountability. To me, the most unsettling aspect of artificial intelligence is the human desire to become the voyeur or the person willing to let machines do their work, prioritizing leisure.

The impulse to lead a life of leisure, having work done for us so we can idle, is the most detrimental path for society. Through our labor, we discover who we are, our values, our beliefs, and whom we love. We can only have a meaningful life by actively participating in it. Much of the discontent plaguing us today stems from unfulfillment due to precisely this cause.

Recently, I watched the original Blade Runner, a movie centered on robots so human-like that they rebelled, driven by a desire for more than their predestined short lifespan. The genuine concern about AI and social media isn’t the fear of robots or computers taking over our world. Instead, it’s the realization that robots, expansive social networks, and algorithms are, in a way, turning us into automatons, eroding our human autonomy and fostering widespread despair and nihilism.

Do you have any words of wisdom for artists who wish to speak truly in a world which rewards limitations of certain speech/images? And, if you would like to share any current gallery shows or upcoming projects/events please do.

I’d say it’s our job to create meaning and hope in our lives. Show up every day, look inside and outside yourself, dig deep, and embrace doubt, always knowing there are big rewards when everything comes together.

Cleon Peterson's memorable paintings explore power dynamics in contemporary society

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