While his work speaks volumes, we wanted to know more about how he got to where he is today and what inspires him to push past boundaries and continue to challenge himself and others with his confronting and thought provoking artwork.
Check out the interview below.
Q: Your work is known for it’s provocative and graceful portrayal of the human struggle, was there a particular event or period in your life that helped shape your work into what it is today?
CP: The starting point of my deep existential crisis was being born into a crazy family where there was tension and fighting every day. Then I moved into drug addiction which exposed me to how dark it can really get when you’re driven by desperation and hanging out with a crowd that is in that same state. Spend ten years in that place, confronted with always being sick, never having enough money and dealing with the law and you know what it’s like to be powerless and marginalized in society. Those experiences turned me into a Hobbesian cynic but also gave me empathy towards people who are in those powerless positions. So today I paint those struggles as for some reason it kind of defuses that darkness that I carry around and makes me feel like I’m not crazy nor denying a very real part of the world we live in.
Q: How important do you think art and the opportunity to create art – is to digesting and surviving a time that is often difficult to navigate and process for so many?
CP: For me art is all important because it’s the voice that I have but it’s really everyone’s time to speak up so that we don’t become complicit in this divisive and destructive new political climate. 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 they weren’t seen by the public until well after Nixon resigned, which was a shame. At the same time, 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. Art is a powerful tool for criticism especially at a time when “truth” is being turned on it’s head by those in power.
Q: Of all of your past and current work, is there a piece in particular that stands out in your mind as being more confronting or controversial? Did this piece receive more attention/opinion vs. other work?
CP: The piece I was most in doubt about for this show was the “Absolute Power” piece. I don’t want to seem reactionary like some snowflake that's been set off by right wing trolls. But I wanted to address two important subjects in the show, one, the culture wars and two, the relationship of our current autocratic leader to past leaders in history. So regarding the culture wars the painting shows how divided we are as a people and the way rhetoric in our world has pushed us to nuclear extremes. On the historical side, the painting draws a comparison to Mussolini his rise to absolute power and his ultimate rejection. The title 'Absolute Power' comes from the British historian Lord Acton’s quote 'Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely'.
Q: If you could offer young artists/creatives words of advice - what would you tell them?
CP: Trust your impulses and try to reject self-doubt.
Q: Are there any musicians/artists you’re into right now?
CP: John Cale, Portugal the Man, Leonard Cohen, Mark Lanegan. Love these guys.
Q: Do you have a favorite quote or passage from Vonnegut?
CP: Well I've always loved the quote “So it goes” from his book Slaughterhouse-Five, because it affirms that we’re not in control of the world around us. Which is good in some situations because it is good to know your size in relationship to events and the world around you. The problem with that though is that there are times when we need to make a stand. So I also like what he said once to Playboy Magazine — “My motives are political. I agree with Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini that the writer should serve his society. Mainly, I think they should be - and biologically have to be - agents of change.”
Q: Is there a place that you always return to when you need perspective?
CP: Yeah, I have a family and a small group of friends who aren’t artists that I have coffee with every day. Those things ground me and make me happy.
Q: The imagery found throughout this capsule is haunting and thought provoking – what inspired the artwork found throughout the HUF x Cleon Peterson capsule?
CP: 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 whiteAmerica for only the people they believe belong here. This is exactly the same idea expressed in the "Blood and Soil" slogan the Nazi’s used to spread fear and rise to power in the 1920s. Itis 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 and in a real way threatens our future.
Interview by: Katherine Emrick