War, Peace, and Cleon Peterson at the Guerrero Gallery

At San Francisco’s Guerrero Gallery, Cleon Peterson’s “The Brinksman” brings viewers into a binary world.  It’s black and white.  It’s black and red.  It’s haves and have-nots.  It’s suitless and suits.  It’s men and women.  And it is completely without boundaries.

Classical statues intersperse a world that has been turned upside down.  People are slaughtered, hung from nooses, decapitated, and wounded throughout the exaggeratedly two-dimensionally flat world framed in Peterson’s paintings.  It is clear that when the “brinksman” are free and on the loose, no one else is.

Installation view of Struggle of Will (Power)

Cleon Peterson | Struggle of Will (Justice), 78in x 78in, Acrylic and spray paint on 9pc. wood panel

Struggle of Will (Justice)

Although I had seen images of Peterson’s work before, I had not expected to feel as unarmed and alarmed as I did in the gallery space.  Part of this might have had to do with the juxtaposition of walking in through the happy go lucky rainbow-painted entryway of the gallery itself.  Part of this also might have had to do with seeking sanctuary from a rainy San Francisco day only to be confronted with a creepier and colder feeling once inside.  And the other more hefty part has to do with the sheer massiveness and volume of violence that confronts you in Peterson’s paintings.

Entry way to Guerrero Gallery

Installation view. Photo by Randy Dodson

Something about the sheen on the paint-splotched warehouse floor of the gallery adds to the feeling of disconnect between the world Peterson creates and the world one stands in as a viewer.  But all of that is to say, I liked the show.  I enjoyed being in the gallery the way one enjoys watching a horror movie, or getting goosebumps, or going on a rollercoaster: it is strange, exciting, scary, and somehow intriguing all at once. (And to give credit where credit is due, this feeling might have been tapped even more given the back room featuring Bill McRight’s even creepier and ominous show “When you get power.”)

Blindfolded, brave, brutal, bloody, and built, the subjects of Peterson’s works are foes in a brutal and seemingly senseless and endless war.  Guerrero Gallery’s website described these scenes: “We observe an ongoing struggle in the thick of a contemporary world, where the instinctual desire to survive through primitive actions takes reign.”

Cleon Peterson | Struggle of Will (Weakness), acrylic and spray paint on 15pc wood panel, 102.5in x 60in

Something about this mention and use of the controversial and often-contested word “primitive” got to me and I wondered how much race plays out in the chaotic and brutalitarian world he has created and harvested.  As one blogger “Lioncorn” noted, “I imagine the fact that the brutes are all black and many of the victims are all white and red can mean something. Some kind of Charles Manson, Helter Skelter, race war, but I don't see them that way.”

The “Brinksman” are all thick, stout men with broad shoulders, mean upper bodies, fierce hands, and beaty, hollow eyes.  These shirtless black-bodied men wreak havoc on white and red figured victims who range from semi-nude to suited. They beat senselessly on one another too.  Racial tension certainly cannot be ignored, but I wasn’t sure what to make of it or the message fueling these madmen.

Cleon Peterson | The Practice of Masters, acrylic on 9pc wood panel, 60in x 60in

Headless and armless classical sculptures float in and out of the paintings and do not recall the usual grandeur and pride of the western artistic cannon that they might often in today’s society.  Instead, they now stand for and stand amidst the spoils of war, which really led such sculptures to be imperiously claimed and trotted back to museums all over the world (take “Winged Victory of Samothocre” at the Louvre for example). The white male figure that hangs from a noose in a tree wearing a crisp, pressed suit and a bag over his head call up certain images of hate crimes, lynchings, and Abu Ghraib.

At times meaningless, senseless, and far too brutal to fully understand or take in without wanting to gag, writhe, or twitch in pain like one of the victims depicted within, Peterson’s paintings gave me a gut instinctual reaction and that is too rare to pass up.

Installation view of Will to Power 1.

Installation view. Photo credit: Randy Dodson.


Cleon Peterson’s “The Brinksman” runs at the Guerrero Gallery through April 7th.

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.



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