For years, Los Angeles based artist Cleon Peterson has made paintings that plunge the viewer headfirst into dark and twisted tableaux, confronting the harrowing depths and details of violence and oppression without holding back. His newest exhibit, “Blood & Soil,” which opens tomorrow at Over The Influence, finds him focusing his unflinching and feral style on America in the present day, bringing to life the chaotic violence and authoritarian power dynamics that underscore our current political state. Minimal and graphic, depicted in ominous shades of black, white, and blood red, his arresting scenes and symbolic sculptures are rooted in classical art (his jagged figures and fluid shapes call to mind a more gruesome Matisse, his sculptures evoke Greco-Roman statues), juxtaposing our modern day anxieties and atrocities against the brutal and expansive landscape of violence that haunts our nation’s history.
“Blood & Soil,” which takes its title from a Nazi slogan that has been invoked by white supremacists in recent years, is his most political body of work yet, eviscerating the corrupt systems of oppression that are currently plaguing our nation and the unjust consolidation of power that may very well be plunging us into a new form of fascism, “one feather at a time.” Haunting and unforgettable, laying bare the grim innards and animalistic impulses of humanity’s eternal struggle for power, the series forces the viewer to reckon with our long and complicated history of violence, the chaos of his canvases functioning as an urgent reminder that if we don’t speak up and take action, history can and will repeat itself.
Part defiant investigation into the dark side of humanity, part warped mirror held up to the waking nightmare of our cultural consciousness, his strange and powerful work packs a visceral impact, vividly illustrating a hard yet undeniable truth: this is America, and we all have blood on our hands. Cleon was kind enough to chat with us about what he hopes people will take from his new series and the enduring importance of artists speaking truth to power in moments of cultural crisis.
“Blood & Soil” runs from July 8th-August 15th at Over The Influence LA (833 East 3rd Street, Los Angeles, CA 90013). Don’t miss it!
Live FAST: Your graphic work has always confronted violence and oppression, yet “Blood & Soil” might be your most political body of work yet. What inspired you to explore the current “consciousness of chaos and carnage” from this particular angle?
Cleon Peterson: I fear that we’re slipping into some new form of fascism, and that corruption and lawlessness are becoming normalized. We have historical examples of how autocratic rulers come into power and how artists have spoken up to them. Philip Guston made a series of drawings of Nixon but never released them, which was a shame. On the other hand, you have artists like John Heartfield who spoke up against the Nazis at great personal risk. I was inspired to make this body of work at this moment because I don’t want to feel powerless in this time of crises and I see it as my responsibility to take action and use my platform to speak truth to power.
LF: “Blood & Soil” juxtaposes the atrocities happening across our country in the present day within the landscape of our nation’s violent history. What do you hope people will take from the series? Do you consider it a wake up call? A prophecy? A response to apathy?
CP: I’m saying that things are fucked and that it’s not the time to deny our problems, bury our heads in the sand, or let the status quo become normalized.
LF: The authoritarian figures in your pieces raise questions about the disparity and consolidation of power in our society, both on an individual and large scale level. What keeps you returning to, and expanding on, this theme of power and oppression?
CP: Democracies don’t just descend into fascism. It happens, as Putin and Mussolini said, “one feather at a time.” When Charlottesville happened, I saw in the news images of men in uniforms that directly reflected the violence I was painting. I thought of Mussolini and Hitler’s rise and fall and the rise of Communism and how it affected the the worldview of the people that lived under it. All these historical parallels that echo what’s going on around us today make it worth examining power dynamics and the ways oppression is manifested in today’s society. This series is more directly focusing on power and oppression within the current political climate, but you could say all of my work explores these tropes within societies both past and present.
LF: The series’ title “Blood & Soil” makes reference to a Nazi slogan idealizing a racially-defined population. It has been invoked in recent years by white supremacists, most notably at the Charlottesville rally last year. What was the intention behind such an incendiary title?
CP: I’ve been deeply troubled by whats going on in our country — how politicians and right wing media have weaponized fear and manipulated people. Every day we’re dealing with culture wars, divisive politics, constant demonization, and attacks on people from a nationalist agenda that intend to get rid of our marginalized people. Trump and his cronies want to make the country a pure white America for only the people they believe belong here. These are exactly the same ideas expressed in the “Blood and Soil” slogan the Nazis used to spread fear and rise to power in the 1920’s. It is important to point this out in a direct way because I think people are denying that what we see and hear in our politics everyday has a relationship to this dark history.
LF: I love the multi-dimensional aspect to your sculpture work, and the way it adds a historical context from an artistic perspective. What do you like about sculpture versus painting?
CP: My sculptures intentionally reference classical forms because it enforces the idea that the issues we’re dealing with today are issues that also existed in the past. Sculptures and public monuments are often designed to be a tribute to those who hold power in society. These symbols are positioned in physical key economic and historical locations as subliminal reminders of this. These sculptures we see every day, that seem ordinary, are overtly political even though they kind of blend into the world around us.
The debate over confederate monuments and the violence around Charlottesville had a deep impact on me. I thought about the values that we project through public monuments and the oppressive intent behind these monuments.
LF: Your work always evokes a visceral reaction. What compels you to create provocative art?
CP: I lived in a deep state of Hobbesian cynicism before because my world was small. I was always acting in self interest and I was always on the wrong side of the law. I was apathetic towards anything political or bigger than what surrounded me in my little world. While my work may seem provocative to some, it comes from a place of true concern for the good of humanity. If we confront these dark tendencies maybe we can find a way to overcome them.