At 24-years-old, Cleon Peterson was living in his car, shooting heroin and facing a possible three-year jail sentence.
Now the 45-year-old lives in LA with his wife and kids and has established himself as one of America’s most prolific modern artists, attracting attention both in the realms of international galleries and popular culture. His work is confronting but also pleasing to the eye, merging the brutal violence he sees in the world with an aesthetic that is part Greco-Roman and part graphic novel-esque.
To date, Peterson has painted a mural under the Eiffel Tower (the first ever), worked with Shepard Fairey for about a decade and had his paintings and sculptures—which are rife with violence and abuses of power—exhibited in solo gallery shows all over the States, Europe and Asia. Yet he comes across as totally approachable and down to earth, even through the fuzz of an international phone line.
“It trips me out all the time dude,” says Peterson. “Because to be able to make art and do your thing, you need to be pretty lucky. And it’s not like I came from a situation where my parents were rich and I had every opportunity.”
Peterson grew up in an abusive household and spent much of his childhood in hospital, immobilised by asthma. He drew a lot and at 18, he started working in the skate industry, designing board graphics for Zero, Toy Machine and Foundation. But by the time he hit his mid-20s, his heroin addiction had become so expensive that he found himself living in his car and supplementing his income through petty crime. He tried and failed to get clean multiple times. Eventually though, it was the prospect of jail that really forced him to kick heroin.
“I’d been to jail before and I didn’t feel like that was the best spot for me,” Peterson deadpans. “[The threat of prison] gave me an incentive to stop using drugs. And when you stop doing drugs, all of a sudden you have a lot of free time to start pursuing other stuff.”
“I was finally able to focus my energy. After you initially get off the drugs and you don’t have that obsession where you’re thinking about them all the time, then you can make that obsession work for you in other ways. I guess art became my new obsession.”
Finally clean, Peterson enrolled in a community college, “just to see if I could do it”. He then went on to study his Bachelor at a design school in LA, and in 2006 he graduated with a Master of Fine Art from the Cranbrook Academy. He describes that period as “buying myself some time to develop”; having previously worked as a designer, he appreciated the opportunity to make art that was neither commissioned nor commercial.
Considering his life up until that point, it’s not surprising that the work he started producing was intensely dark. “At first I started drawing pictures of people doing drugs and deviant stuff on the streets because it was stuff that I had experienced being out on the street,” Peterson says.
Some of Peterson’s older works, which usually feature just two or three colours and have a graphic-novel-like quality, depict streetscapes littered with booze, lecherous men, women suffering sexual violence and police brutality. These scenes are certainly heavy, but they’re almost tame compared to the hyper-violent stuff Peterson has been creating in more recent years.
Shadow of Men, Peterson’s most recent solo show at the MCA in Denver, depicts looming, thick-necked figures, some naked, others in underwear, lynching, stabbing and beheading each other. While viewers and critics are inclined to attribute the violence to Peterson’s experiences or some kind of buried sadism, he says the violence he depicts is simultaneously global and personal. It is, at least partly, informed by the geopolitical violence that is ubiquitous and yet so often still ignored.
“We were in these endless wars with Afghanistan and Iraq and I started thinking, ‘Well is this an issue of mine or is this somebody else’s problem?’” says Peterson. “There was a little bit of an apathy towards what was really going on in the world. It didn’t touch us here in the United States that we were in two wars—the longest wars that we’ve ever been in—and the different nationalist crises that were going on around the world.”
“My work isn’t necessarily all about violence, it’s also about power structures. So I started making artwork about what I see as my problem in the world, as much as everybody else’s problem, which is war.”
This distinction—that global events, which often happen in faraway places actually affect all of us on a personal level—is one that Peterson reiterates. “I think there’s a certain sense of people feeling disempowered by thinking that it’s not affecting them,” he explains. “I think it’s important for people to have a voice and to express that voice in today’s world.”
Confronting political issues through art is as old as the hills, but Peterson probably takes some influence from Shepard Fairey, the street artist, designer and activist who’s best known for founding OBEY Clothing and for creating the “Hope” poster of Barack Obama during his 2008 election campaign. The pair met way back in 1998 and when Peterson graduated from art school in 2006, he took a job working for Fairey in his studio.
Peterson explains, “After I met Shepard I basically saw that those guys were making way more money doing illustrations than I could make in the skateboard industry designing logos and stuff like that. I was like, ‘I’m going to learn how to do that so I can make more money.’”
But the cash incentive was a matter of survival rather than greed, says Peterson. “I was still just trying to get by, to have enough money for rent and everything.” He went on to work for Shepard Fairey for the next 10 years, setting himself an intense, if not obsessive, work regime.
“Every day I’d basically get up at four in the morning to work on my stuff so that I’d get energy for making my art. Then at 10 o’clock I’d go to Shepard’s studio and start working for him until six. That was every Monday through Friday and then all the weekend I’d work on my stuff too. That was my schedule for years, man.”
Peterson slips into a hearty chuckle after relating this, seemingly chuffed that he no longer struggles to make rent. He quit working for Fairey just over two years ago, having established himself to the point where he can live off his own work. I ask Peterson if he still cranks out 10-hour days.
“Yeah, pretty much,” he laughs, “Or a little more than that sometimes. I just hang out at my studio and draw and paint all day and work on sculptures. I actually don’t even leave the studio that much.”
Peterson’s latest body of work, Blood and Soil, which will be exhibited on July 7 at Over The Influence in LA, is some of the most political art he’s created to date. He says he’s been thinking about oppressive power structures a lot, especially the leadership of the Trump administration, which he describes as “especially traumatic times”. He explains, “Blood and Soil is about nationalism and populism and fascism and the end of democracy—it’s addressing all sorts of stuff that we’re going through right now.”