Cleon Peterson’s work doesn’t make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. “Savage” is a word that comes up a lot to describe the Los Angeles-based artist. But while the subject matter tends to be brutal and violent, the pieces are unquestionably beautiful. They are vaguely reminiscent of ancient Greek art with relatively simple forms engaged in different vignettes and a stark, monochromatic palette that does away with anything frivolous. Because the characters are human-like but not quite human, viewers have license to explore emotions and thoughts that they might not necessarily like to admit they personally have.
The experience is the same whether you’re seeing the work hanging in a gallery or on a T-shirt, like the ones in Peterson’s recently released “In Killing We Live” collaboration with streetwear brand Huf. Peterson and Huf founder Keith Hufnagel first met through skateboarding in New York during the halcyon days of the 90s and both came up through the sport: Hufnagel as a pro skater and Peterson as an artist designing deck graphics. They reconnected to work on this capsule collection, which includes a bomber jacket, sweatshirt, duffel bag, hat, socks, and a skateboard deck.
We spoke with Peterson to talk about creating art for fashion, the violence in his work, and why he can’t sit around waiting for inspiration to strike.
When did you first develop the style featured in the “In Killing We Live” collection?
I’ve been doing work like this for around 10 years. It started out more complex and has become more refined through time. Now I’m at a point where I only put the most necessary things in the drawings and have evolved the forms to express the exact emotion I’m going for. I find drawing and painting in a simpler style like this is actually more difficult than adding tons of details and extraneous stuff. If you have less, every mark has to be just right.
When you are creating art to appear on clothes, how does your approach differ from when you are creating standalone pieces?
I actually don’t approach it much differently. Clothing and fashion are just as politically charged throughout time as paintings hanging in museums. Clothing has been and currently is a really sophisticated vehicle for people to express [ideas about] politics, sexuality, individuality, and many other things. Even though I’m in the game of expressing myself on canvas, there’s no reason why what I make can’t live on clothing and have the same resonance.
What is it like for you to have your work exposed to a different audience through this collab who might not otherwise be familiar with you?
That’s another great thing about clothing and fashion, you don’t need money or power to be heard or influenced. This collaboration was an opportunity to make the art attainable to everyone. Ideally, in a perfect world as an artist, I’d like everyone to be able to experience what I make.
How do you feel about the current state of fashion and streetwear?
Honestly, I could care less. I can’t say I spend much time thinking about it.
What is your reaction when people say your work is “too violent”?
It’s great, I think it’s too violent as well. Unfortunately I’m painting what’s impacting me about the world we all live in now and I see it as my job to be an artist of the times—so that’s what I’m painting, our times.
How does your background in skateboarding influence your creative process?
I grew up skating and being involved in that culture. It was about being socially deviant and coming up with a unique perspective on the world: having a unique style and approach to physical obstacles in spaces on the streets. All that stuff translates into art making. It’s the same game, deep down.
What are some of your most memorable skateboard graphics that you’ve designed?
I don’t know, I did a lot of unmemorable boards. I think for a lot of the time I was designing skateboards, I was totally strung out on drugs and young. I don’t feel like my best work was done in that world to be honest.
You also recently collaborated on a Modernica daybed, what was that process like?
It was great. They make really good stuff over there so we just sat down, brainstormed and came up with some cool ideas and that’s what transpired.
Who are the artists that influenced you?
When I was young, Jacob Lawrence was a family friend and the first person I met that was making really important work. After that, all kinds of artists, authors, musicians and filmmakers followed. I like getting influences outside of art. John Cale and Leonard Cohen are big for me alongside Kurt Vonnegut, Jerzy Kosińsk and Fyodor Dostoevsky. I also like movies like Kiss of the Spider Woman and Brazil. I’m all over the map but I tend to like people that are imaginative and dark in some way.
Where do you find yourself constantly going for inspiration?
General life, traveling, talking to friends, listening to people. Inspiration is everywhere. At this point however, I don’t wait around for inspiration. My working method is more of just putting hours and hours in not knowing where I’m going to end up, then in the end if I’m lucky, being surprised.
What other projects do you have coming up?
I’ll be having a show at the Core Club in New York in September and then in Paris with Agnes B in January at her gallery there.