In most instances of Western, multi-figure history painting, a story is being told from a very particular point of view. Consider Jacques Louis David’s The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799), or Francisco Goya’s The Third of May (1808), or even Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937); in each example, there feature clearly defined victims and aggressors, heroes (or heroines) and villains.
At first glance, Cleon Peterson’s large paintings and murals might seem to conform to this traditional genre of moralistic, politicized storytelling. Peterson’s scenes of carnage, in which one group of humanoid creatures inflicts appalling violence on another nearly identical group, push some deeply emotive buttons, including horror, disgust, anger, empathy, pathos and fear. In our hypersensitized age of knee-jerk partisan politics and permanent moral outrage, we automatically search the pictures for signs or symbols indicating how these scenes can be mapped onto real world situations, and thus how our emotional responses can be directed towards a certain contemporary grievance or issue. In Peterson’s art, however, no such signposts exist.
In a consistent and expansive body of work developed over the past several years, Peterson has created something quite rare in today’s climate: a study of oppression and victimhood that is objective, impartial, even amorally detached. Peterson is not concerned with questions of right and wrong, good and evil, truth and fallacy. Such simple (and often illusory) moralistic positions are beside the point.
While in previous series the oppressors have been signified with quasi-Fascistic uniforms that might evoke the attire of contemporary American police or the Nazi ‘Brown Shirts’ of the Third Reich, in this exhibition the two sides are physionomically identical – hulking, brutish figures with muscular torsos and shrunken necks – except for the occasional inclusion amongst the victims of females. The point is that the two sides are theoretically interchangeable; that black can just as easily be white, and vice versa. There is no fixed ideological value attached to either.
Peterson’s thinking is influenced by the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment, in which participants were allocated roles of either a guard or a prisoner. The authoritarian behaviour of the ‘guards’ rapidly became more extreme, even sadistic, while many of the ‘prisoners’ wilfully submitted to psychological abuse, and the experiment was abandoned after only six days. He also draws on Carl Jung’s conception of “the shadow” – the unconscious self, the dark and irrational side of the conscious ego. As the black shadow figures in his paintings bear down on their white counterparts, it is appealing to identify with the victims and to think of the shadows as ‘other’: inhuman, animalistic, belonging a distant time or place.
As political (and social) discourse moves increasingly into a virtual sphere via social media, extremism and tribalism in both its micro and macro forms is on the rise. We are conscious of power and violence existing not only at a militaristic or bureaucratic level, but also as ubiquitous dynamics on the level of our personal interactions. Patterns of behaviour repeat themselves throughout human society.
Instead of defensive posturing or virtue signalling, Peterson’s subject is the entwinement of aggression and retaliation, and the cyclical nature of victimhood and tyranny through which all of us must face the possibility that we have dormant within ourselves the capacity for violence, depravity and atavistic debasement, given the right (or wrong) circumstances. For Peterson, the contemplation of this latent shadow side in the human psyche is akin to Romantic artists and philosophers contemplating the natural Sublime. To stare into the sun is to look at something omnipresent that refuses to be looked at, which the human body is reflexively hardwired not to see. After the pain subsides, the vision of the bright white sun endures as a black spot, a negation of its light, a hole: a space of doubt and anxiety in place of solidity and certainty.