Cleon Peterson is a Seattle-born artist based in Los Angeles. The 42-year-old once studied graphic design at Bloomfield Hills' Cranbrook Academy of Art and has also worked with Shepard Fairey. We spoke to him in advance of his first solo show in Detroit.
Metro Times: I imagine you had your eureka moment when you came up with these violent caveman figures that you've been working with.
Cleon Peterson: It's super funny. I look back at the drawings I did even when I was a little kid and they're basically really similar to what I'm doing now. It's almost like some kind of innate form of expression that I've always had. I was really into 007, James Bond. I'd draw these underwater scenes with guys shooting each other with harpoons.
MT: Your current work has a sort of timeless quality — your figures look kind of like cavemen, but they're wearing underwear, which modernizes them. You can't really tell what race they are, or what weapons they're holding. Is that a conscious ambiguity?
Peterson: I'm drawing different parts of the psyche. It's not a simple "good versus evil" — I'm trying to get down to a very basic, primal, instinctual thing.
MT: What medium do you work in? Your images are monochromatic, like they could be prints.
Peterson: Everything that's in the show is acrylic painting on canvas. It's a trip — you've really got to see them in person. It's really textural. It doesn't really translate to photography.
MT: I saw you have sculptures too. Is that a new way of working for you?
Peterson: Yeah. Making sculptures isn't something you can really jump into if you don't have any dough, you know what I mean? [Laughs] It's never been something that I've been able to do. A company is making the molds and all that, the reproductions. It's like a monthlong process.
I'd love to be able to work on monumental, large stuff that could live in public space. That would be really cool. In Europe, you can walk around and see all these historic events immortalized in sculpture. We don't really do that kind of stuff here.
MT: You have a mural already outside of the Library Street Gallery. When did you paint that?
Peterson: I think a year or so ago. I was thinking about painting the history of Detroit industry, and kind of the industry of war. I wanted to make this comment on our economy. That's how I came up with "the marchers."
MT: You left school early to pursue art education on your own, right?
Peterson: Yeah, I went to like, two days of high school. After that, I basically got a scholarship and went to school in Seattle when I was like, 16. I think it's not a good situation necessarily when you're really young to go to college. You have to mature a little bit more.
MT: I read that you kind of got into drugs for a while, and landed in jail. And after Shepard Fairey wound up giving you studio space. How'd you meet him?
Peterson: I designed skateboards a long time ago, in like 1998. He was designing in San Diego. The first time I met him, I went over to his place. I was living in my car, and I was trying to sell him some skateboards because I needed money to get high, basically. After that I was living in a behavior modification place where they send people who just got out of jail. I needed to work somewhere, and Shepard said, "Why don't you work over here?"
MT: Anything else people should know about your show?
Peterson: I'm excited to come to Detroit. I lived on campus at Cranbrook. I came down once in a while to see shows and stuff and eat. The grad school thing, you're so busy that you're just kind of going mental — you just kind of fall into the abyss of yourself.
Peterson's POISON solo show has an opening from 6 p.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 29 at the Library Street Collective; 1260 Library St., Detroit; 313-600-7443; lscgallery.com; no cover. Runs until Oct. 15.
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