Cleon Peterson’s powerful paintings challenge modern-day anxieties; directly criticising global and national politics. Blood & Soil, a title taken directly from a Nazi slogan, opens this Saturday at Over the Influence, LA. Moving from expressive nudes to figures in uniform, this exhibition observes Cleon attacking America’s here and now. Drawing from classical art forms, with his figures reminiscent of those created by the Greeks, the artist highlights how history never seems to progress — justice remains an unreachable ideal, law and order remains violent and corrupt. Concerned that we are slipping into a new form of fascism, Cleon has decided to speak up instead of remain silent. With their bold, uniform blocks of red, white and black, these threatening, ferocious paintings speak volumes.
It’s Nice That caught up with Cleon Peterson, ahead of the exhibition’s opening tomorrow.
It’s Nice That: How does the title Blood & Soil play into the meaning of the exhibition?
Cleon Peterson: I’ve been deeply troubled with how politicians and right-wing media have weaponised fear and manipulated people. Every day we’re dealing with culture wars, divisive politics, constant demonisation and attacks on people from a nationalist agenda that intends to marginalise them. These are the same ideas expressed in the “Blood & Soil” slogan that the Nazi’s used to spread fear and rise to power in the 1920s. I think it’s important to point this out in a direct way because people deny that what we see in our politics has a relationship to this dark history.
INT: Do your sculptures draw from classical tradition and why is it one of your preferred mediums?
CP: Yes, my sculptures intentionally reference the classical 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, and to what cultural values are approved of by those in control.
The debate over Confederate monuments and the violence around Charlottesville had a profound impact on me. I thought about the values that we project through public monuments and the oppressive intent behind them. It made me think about the destructive things that we approve through complicit cultural non-action simply because they’ve become the norm.
INT: Why have you chosen the colour palette: red, white and black?
CP: Red, black, and white feels violent and references the authoritarian colours used in propaganda, uniforms and symbols from the past.
INT: In this series, your figures wear uniforms in comparison to the nakedness we’ve seen before – why is this?
CP: My last exhibition showed nude figures because they are expressive. There’s also a timelessness to the naked figure. When I started drawing uniformed men, I realised that I was making work about us here and now. I thought, “why am I making these images of men in uniforms? There is no one in uniform taking to people in the streets.” However, then Charlottesville happened, and I saw the violence I was painting. I began to realise that I was painting a composite of history and today. Democracies don’t just descend into fascism; it happens as Putin and Mussolini said, “one feather at a time”.
INT: What is this exhibition trying to say about law and order?
CP: The exhibition is a direct criticism of our country’s government. It is saying that our laws need to be just and ethical not just an arbitrary tool for people in power to use against their enemies. I think the law should be redemptive, not punishing, and although law and justice can never be perfect, it can be ethical.
I lived in a deep state of Hobbesian cynicism before because my world was small. I acted 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. Since then I’ve grown to be part of the world, and because I feel invested, I also feel like I have a responsibility to be involved. I feel compelled to speak up about these political issues because these policies affect me and the people I value.
Blood and Soil is open from 8 July – 5 August.
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