We met up with painter Cleon Peterson in Los Angeles to discuss the method to his madness. He told us why listening to kids is more important than what you learn in art school.
Cleon Peterson’s anxious and violent paintings make the art world uncomfortable, in a good way. He creates landscapes for anarchists, “a gray world where law breakers and law enforcers are one in the same; a world where ethics have been abandoned in favor of personal entitlement.”
His work, primarily in black, white and red, are flat representations of figures stabbing each other. Blood drips from swords, trees loom in the background and teeth are bared.
The evil nature of his work caught the attention of Batman v Superman director Zack Snyder who put Peterson’s work on Lex Luther’s apartment walls. (Take a peek at 1:02 in this trailer to see the paintings.) You’ll have to wait until Batman v Superman opens on March 25th to see more.
That’s why it was surprising when Peterson told us that he’s inspired by kids. Furthermore, that talking to kids will further our society.
Here’s what we learned from Cleon Peterson when we visited him in his LA studio.
“Putting work out in public might be the biggest transition for an artist and the scariest thing to do. I think it’s super important to make work and then put it out there in the world. Half of art is expressing yourself, and the other half, which I think is really exciting, is seeing how people react to what you make.”
Peterson’s signature characters were created by channeling child-like intuition.
“Those guys kind of developed in the last 10 years, but it’s weird because even before that, looking at old drawings I had done when I was a kid, I had been inventing very similar characters.
"Maybe you listen to your intuitions more when you’re a kid. If you can get past all the things you think you should be doing, you can get to that core expression.
"When you go to art school, you’re bombarded with all the rules you have to follow and ideas of how to fit into the academy or the museum. The way to really be successful though, is just to listen to yourself.”
His street art is political and aimed at social commentary.
“Most of my work hangs on gallery walls. I like the idea of street art murals because you’re doing something public—and not necessarily something that is beautifying. You can create social commentary that people don’t get to choose to see. They didn’t choose it to hang above their couch.
"I don’t consider myself a street artist, but then again I don’t really know what a ‘street artist’ is. My idea would be to do something that was more disruptive or destructive. Something that’s difficult to like.
"I started out painting more about my experiences in the world, from my perspective, say, about doing drugs in the street. But then with war and everything else going on, I changed my thinking from ‘That’s not my story’ to ‘This is everyone’s story.’
"Making art now, I almost feel a social obligation to address what’s going on in the world because that’s what we’re living with. Because what is the function of art? I think its role is to make people see the world in a different way.”
Listening to kids will move society forward.
“I once heard Maurice Sendak in an interview saying that kids aren’t respected to the degree that they should be. They’re able to deal with difficult ideas and come to their own conclusions. Everyone should respect their kids and have dialogues. That’s how things will move forward.”
Header image via Ming’s