Photo by Jan Olof Nygren; licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Cleon Peterson

“I paint a reality that not everybody has gone through, but it exists and is out there. There is a sort of primary life that goes with misery, that is what I try to approach in my paintings.”

Contemporary artist Cleon Peterson creates dystopian scenes where, in a broken system, violence is unavoidable and never-ending.

Originally a skateboard graphic designer, Peterson joined Shepard Fairey’s street art team in the late ‘90s and has become known for his mostly two-tone, clean line images of hulking figures in a style reminiscent of Greco-Roman vases.

Peterson’s paintings and murals depict police brutality, beheadings, stabbings, and strangulation as the norm in a savage world.

Solo Shows
Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, Over the Influence, New Image Art Gallery, The Outsiders, Guerrero Gallery, Joshua Liner Gallery, Monster Children Gallery
Group Shows
Joshua Liner Gallery, THIS Gallery, The Hole, Show & Tell, La Gaîté Lyrique
Reviewed In
Hypebeast, Artsy, The Know, Anthem + more
Collected By
Joshua Liner Gallery, Blackline Gallery, La Gaîté Lyrique + more

Los Angeles-based artist Cleon Peterson brings dystopian nightmares to life through large, chaotic scenes screenprinted on woven paper. Influenced by the politically-charged art of Leon Golub and the breakdown of class structure and societal norms depicted by artists such as Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, Peterson creates humanoid figures who resemble Greco-Roman gladiators inflicting brutal, cyclical violence on each other with no discernible purpose or end in sight. His worlds are bedlam, where “law breakers and law enforcers are one [and] the same” and “ethics have been abandoned in favor of personal entitlement,” as dark figures find temporary solace and meaning in sex, drugs, religion—or more violence.

Peterson first found his creative outlet as a graphic designer for skateboards. In 1998, he joined the California street team for Shepard Fairey before breaking out on his own with outdoor frescos and group shows in the early 2000s. Today, he has become known for anxiety-riddled prints that are a meditation on oppression and victimhood, both simultaneously engaged yet detached.

With overlapping, Escher-like patterns of brutality, and prints where the colors are interchangeable and black could just as easily be white (or red, for that matter), Peterson is not concerned with questions with morality or winners versus losers; the system is broken. Consider “Civil Rights” (2015), where oppressors in uniforms (reminiscent of Nazi paramilitary SS or modern-day police officers) raise batons against a cowering figure. No further context is needed in works such as “Eclipse” (2017), where black figures who bleed white blood chase white figures who bleed black blood in an endless loop; or “The Genocide” (2016), where armed figures stand over a heap of lifeless, nearly identical-looking figures in a pit. More recent works, including his Little Man Big Man series (2018), “Pisser II” (2018), and “Destroy America” (2020) are inspired by recent events and star real-world figures, including Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Robert Mueller.

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