In one of my favourite podcasts of all time, the Bill Withers episode of "Death, Sex and Money", the legendary songwriter and singer divides his life into two segments: the "trying to get through it" part and the "making something of yourself" part. He also says: "You have to put yourself on the line and to put yourself on the line, you have to at least think you can do it, so, no false modesty. But, there is no way not to be afraid. To me courage is not not being afraid, it is what do you do in spite of being afraid." The episode I'm speaking of is called: "How to be a man", although it's not about gender. It's about showing up and pushing through. Before and immediately after my sit-down with artist Cleon Peterson who opened his exhibition "The Judgement" at Plus-One in Antwerp, I find myself thinking a lot about the words of Withers. The difficulty about showing up is that from time to time, your past shows up with you and if you're doing it right, there ain't no smothering or hiding. You have to reckon with it. So when that first talk with Cleon didn't go quite the way I wanted it to, because ghosts from my youth were haunting me and I couldn't work past them in that exact moment, I knew I had to deal with it. So I sent him a mail explaining where I thought I got stuck and asked if he would be kind enough to answer some additional questions. "No problem, Dominique." read the reply, but before he gave me some beautifully thought out quotes for the interview, he addressed my words about my own upbringing in the same soothing way the artist that gave us "Lean On Me" did. Bill Withers said: "The fact is we are born into the situations we are born into and then one day you are and you try to do something with yourself. Be interesting and commit." I think Bill Withers would like how Cleon Peterson is handling things.
Cleon Peterson is an artist. He shows us what is literally in front of us but we don't necessarily want to address. In his earlier work he depicted what he found outside his doorstep and what had been going on inside his own world: rape, police brutality, overdoses, murder. In recent years he started drawing tableaus that might need less stroke brushes, but the ways in which it all could be interpreted multiplied. He even started blowing up these minimal but perfected podgy characters to such proportions that all the murdering and rampaging they get up to is hard to miss. In this current exhibition, a 4m high statue of an execution stands proud like a giant black decapitating elephant in the room. The artist insists that he is trying to depict more of a view on things that are happening in the world as a whole rather than to him.
But let there be no doubt: Cleon Peterson has seen things.
He was born in Seattle, but moved to L.A. He once said, that for some reason the East Coast never felt like home. Research show that it was where he and his brother lived in a Bed & Breakfast owned by his mother -a former ballerina- that was mostly occupied by dance troops and theatre people. Young Cleon had a sickly childhood spending long periods of times in the hospital for severe asthma. He started drawing. A lot. His mother recognized her boy's talent, set up his first art show long before he was in high school and eventually pushed him to get his GED at age 14 so he could get into art school. This all might sound like somewhat risky, certainly supportive parenting, but when researching Cleon you will stumble upon some images and information that depending on how liberal your view is, your reaction might vary from rather iffy to "Oi lady! What the actual fuck?” Peterson kicked a severe drug habit and survived jail. He is now a husband and a father to three kids, and as you can see in Antwerp for a couple of more days, one of our most exciting living artists.
Here's what we talked about:
KNOTORYUS: Congratulations on this beautiful exhibition! Did you make these pieces especially to be shown here at PLUS ONE?
What you see here was initially made for another show, but then that didn’t work out. When the Paris attacks happened, the previous curator didn’t want violent work in their show because anymore, so they changed the content and asked me to edit my work, which I of course refused. At the same time I was working with Mathieu and Jason from Case Studyo on the "Destroying The Weak" figures and they came up with the idea to do the show here in Belgium and I thought that was perfect.
KNOTORYUS: It's pretty weird that someone tries to cancel your work when it shows what is actually really happening in the world.
It’s interesting right? I think it is important for someone who owns a gallery to take risks along with the artist, instead of getting worried about what you’re showing being critiqued by the public or putting yourself into some kind of crisis mode. I think this was exactly the right time to do a show, when it’s such a topical subject. You know, in the United States we've been dealing with these types of attacks for a while now, but when something happens in Europe, I can understand the knee-jerk reaction on some level. Anyway, I'm glad I'm showing here in Antwerp now.
KNOTORYUS: This show is called "The Judgement".
We took the title from this giant sculpture that we produced. But it is about acting out law, deciding from a personal law and a moral code who lives and who dies.
KNOTORYUS: Do you have to dig deep every time you start a new project or series?
CLEON PETERSON: I used to paint things that I knew or that I had actually seen around me, like social deviants, drug abuse, mental institutions, incarceration, This was all part of my daily life when I had my drug addiction. Now that I'm further away from that and with this new world I'm experiencing, I think I have the opportunity to speak about a grander world. It transitioned from a mostly personal experience to something more outwardly. It still has to do with my life, but not in such a literal sense. It's not depicting things I get confronted with on a daily basis. I am not in a warzone. But I was a drug addict on the streets. It went from a personal experience to a personal view of the world. As far as how existential it all is: if you want to create something from nothing it is always going to be difficult. I don't think I am as indecisive about my craft as I maybe used to be, because I do it every day. I do know it's not going to be easy, but if I just show up and just work and work and work, almost like a 9 to 5 job, and if I remind myself to not get too frustrated or beat myself up too much, eventually I will get there. Don't get me wrong. I've been there. Maybe because I'm getting older, I'm also giving myself more of a break.
KNOTORYUS: You have been drawing and painting from a very early age, you got to put on art shows as a kid and everybody was gushing over your talent. Have you always been confident about your abilities? When did you start to trust your talent? It happens a lot to child prodigies that they don't know what to do with their gift.
CLEON PETERSON: I always knew that I had to do it. There was no other option ever. But no, I didn't trust my talent. I think the crisis comes when you make something and then suddenly you start to think: "What are these people out there going to think?" or when you start to auto-critique and you become stuck. A big part of my art for the last seven or eight years is reaching down and trusting my intuition and emotional self and make what I make and don't self-edit. Just put out what I feel and what I think is right.
KNOTORYUS; Your mother was the first to recognize your talent and she pushed you into creating more work and putting on art shows. But when I researched you, it seems that a lot of people read about your mom or see her in interviews and are expecting you to be mad a more resentful, because she might be perceived as having some boundary issues and maybe living vicariously through her sons (Cleon's brother is artist Leigh Ledare). But you seem to be really cool with her. Could you maybe explain what space your mom occupies in terms of your life and art?
It's an interesting question. We went through a period of a couple years before where she took me on the road in some type of art manager way, kind of like these parents of kids in Hollywood. Her interest in pushing me in art was good in some ways. It allowed me to go to museums and study art full time at a young age. In other ways it was really stifling. I was a fan of good art at good museums and I knew that art making was dependent on knowing and expressing myself as an individual. I didn’t see any of the artists' mothers or the artists' mothers' ideas at the museums. My mother and I were distinctly different people with totally different perceptions of the world, and in the end I knew I didn’t owe her anything or have an obligation to fulfil any of her aspirations. It's probably something that every kid goes through as they grow up. It just happened very fast and very 100% for me. And yes, she has boundary issues, but at some point I threw up a wall, became independent and just lived life that way ever since. Today we don’t have a normal relationship. There is always a distance and I don’t feel an obligation to be son to her type of mother or pretend to have a traditional family. It's just the hand I was dealt.
KNOTORYUS: Who were the artists you looked up to the most when you were 16-18 and why?
Gilbert and George, I just thought they were amazing and honest, Kurt Vonnegut because of how he used his experiences in life throughout his books and taught me about the absurdity of life and “so it goes”. "Kiss of the Spider Woman" with Raúl Juliá and William Hurt. It's about marginalized people that were so different and seeing this created a true bond.
KNOTORYUS: So when was the exact point you started to trust yourself and your talent? When did it all start to turn around?
CLEON PETERSON: Probably when I went to Graduate School in Detroit, which was from 2004 until 2006. That environment was so hypercritical and there were so many people analysing everything. The year I was in was especially brutal. Your job if you're a student there is to pinpoint every problem within the work, bring it up and then have a dialogue about that. When you're in that position, at first you think: "I have got 14 peers that are going to look at this from every angle, what are the issues going to be, what am I going to confront when I go to the critiques?” I got so fed up with that, so I went: "Fuck it, forget about all this bullshit, I am just going to start trusting myself and make what I am going to make. I didn't think I was making stuff that was catering to the direction of the school or what the faculty wanted, I just followed my instincts and it worked.
KNOTORYUS: At a certain difficult point in your life, Shepard Fairey gave you a job. How did that go?
CLEON PETERSON: I went to jail for drugs and it was a big deal, because they were going to send me to prison for three years. Part of my sentence was that I had to go through a government program for a year and a half to rehabilitate and when that ended, I had to get a job. The people from the institution didn't want me to go back to designing skateboards and magazines, because that's what I was doing when I was getting fucked up. I went around grocery stores to ask for a job, but no one would hire me and I never worked regular jobs like at a café or something. I had met Shepard when I was still using, but not that I was sober I hit him up and he gave me a job. But let's be clear, he wasn't doing it for charity or anything.
KNOTORYUS: He probably saw an excellent opportunity for hiring a talented artist and designer to come work for him.
CLEON PETERSON: It was more like that, yeah. And for me it was after years of being fucked up, re-entering the workforce sober. But to be fair, he did give me a job at a moment when everybody thought I was bad news. On the first day he told me that my reputation preceded me. I was scary to some people.
KNOTORYUS: Were you violent, though? Or were they more scared of you because of the drug use.
CLEON PETERSON: I wasn't violent, no. It was about the drug use. I was with my ex-wife. We were in and out the hospital a lot. People around me were committing suicide. I was always hanging with sketchy folk.
Please correct me if I’m wrong, but the women in your art seem to seldom be doing any of the rampaging or murdering. Why is that?
Maybe this is catharsis or I am taking out the frustrations with my mother in an Oedipal way. Maybe I also don’t see women as being solicitors of violence. Maybe this is naive, because now that I think about it there’s been a long tradition of women fighters. I know that there was a woman involved in the latest terrorist attack in California. Another reason though is that in war women seem to be victimized by violence more than men. I read about this all the time and it's really bad.
KNOTORYUS: What is the work that you are most proud of in recent years.
CLEON PETERSON: That's a difficult one. (Goes silent)
I'm all about evolving from one piece to the next, so I don't really stop to think about that. Probably the sculptural work I'm doing now is the next big evolution for me, because I have always wanted to do that. It really has always been about what I am able to do with painting and scale and multiple dimensions. It's a totally different approach and a new way of looking at it. You can't just turn a drawing into 3-D and expect it to work as a sculpture. It doesn't translate. My compositions are all about balance, so I love trying to figure it all out.
KNOTORYUS: Did your art and process change since having children?
CLEON PETERSON: My kids are between the ages of 4 and 8 and they ask questions and I answer them. I don't edit or change subject matter because them. These guys are more sophisticated than we often give credit. I think the role of art is to create dialogue, so whenever they come to me with questions about what I’m painting I do my best to talk and share my ideas. Children are too sheltered today. Parents for some reason think they need to proliferate tremendous puritanical social pressure not to disturb some kind of imaginary innocence children have, but like it or not they need to learn about the world we live in and be able to have their own thoughts and questions.
KNOTORYUS: I really have to say: it is not your past that I find so intimidating, it is the fact that you bounced back in such an epic way, both physically and psychologically, that I find to be so impressive. What do you attribute this to and how do you keep yourself from slipping?
CLEON PETERSON: I stopped using drugs and with the help of some friends and kind of learned how to live in an honest way, respect people, show up even if I didn’t want to and follow through. Then because I felt like I was given a second chance I just decided that I was going to be ambitious and chase after and do whatever I wanted to do in life trying to live without fear of rejection or self-editing. Before I think fear held me back and a lot of the time I didn’t try things because I was worried about not succeeding. Guess you have to be okay with failure and usually in the end everything works out and the fear that you feel doesn’t come to pass.
KNOTORYUS: The opening of the show was "with the artist present". Do you still get nervous?
CLEON PETERSON: No, that doesn't scare me. (Laughs) I try to stick around and talk to anyone who drops by. Despite of what you might think, I actually really like meeting people and hanging out.
KNOTORYUS: Thank you so much for talking to me, Cleon.
UNTIL FEBRUARY 20, 2016
Friday and Saturday from 14-18h
+ On appointment