Like a punch to the stomach: street artist Cleon Peterson presents his vision of a violent world

The acclaimed American artist brings his signature monochrome style back to Hong Kong with a visceral new mural in Sheung Wan and a pop-up show of 20 large canvases

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 January, 2016, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 January, 2016, 12:01pm

It’s hard not to draw links between the work of US street artist Cleon Peterson and Hong Kong’s political landscape. His imposing, mostly monochrome images of clashing figures struggling for power, dripping with themes of police brutality, domination and submission, seem to have been custom-made for the city.

But while he recognises the local comparisons, Peterson says his message is a much more sombre: his violent images have no geographical borders but apply to every region of the world.

“It would be easy to say these images reflect politics in Hong Kong right now, but the themes I depict are not just what’s happening in this city – it’s what’s happening globally,” says the Seattle-born, LA-based artist.

Peterson visited Hong Kong this month for his show “Purity”, a pop-up featuring 20 large-scale acrylic-on-canvas pieces, each raging with violence and brutality. It’s the artist’s second show in the city and the first exhibition managed by Over The Influence, a new Hong Kong organisation focusing on radical and influential contemporary international artists. The show at The Space ends on January 31.

On the day we meet, just before his show’s opening, Peterson is unveiling something else: a huge work on Hollywood Road, his latest fingerprint on the city’s streetscape (he has similar works on lanes off Hollywood Road). An imposing five metres by five metres, the image on Wa Lane on the Sheung Wan end of Hollywood Road, came about thanks to a new initiative by French restaurant La Cantoche, also on Wa Lane, that will make the space available to artists.

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And the wall got an impressive debut. The image shows huge forms intertwined in a violent battle, painted in Peterson’s signature black and white (he occasionally dabbles in angry red). It’s his ability to project such powerful imagery and complex messages using so few colours that has helped him stand out from the crowd. “I call these guys the shadows,” he says taking a step back. “It kind of represents the dark side of all of us.”

The massive mural took just three hours to spray – after all, Peterson is one of the leading street artists in the world right now, his work hanging in galleries worldwide and his images regularly jumping from the pages of uber-cool arts mag such as Juxtapoz. But unveiling it a few hours after completion presented another battle for Peterson – one with Mother Nature and a reminder of the difficulties an artist faces when the canvas is not in a controlled environment.

Perilously balancing on top of a ladder, Peterson peeled back the stencil of his latest gift to the city, only to have tiny pieces stick to the wall, the thick, damp air acting like glue. And it’s not his first run-in with the city’s temperamental temperature: when he was in Hong Kong last summer, it was the baking heat that caused issues.

But with the help of a couple of brush-wielding members of his team, a few strips pulled here and a few strokes of the blackest of black paint there, the piece was quickly restored to its intended glory: imposing and violent, with the visual impact of a stomach punch.

And that’s just how Peterson likes it.

With an aesthetic rooted in graphic design and a style reminiscent of Graeco-Roman vases, Peterson – whose career received early traction with his work for the US skateboarding community – says his art depicts a world in which violence exists without context. And he’s not afraid to show the uglier side of humanity.

“That world is today. People today, in the US especially, have become non-participatory as far as what’s going on in the world. Yes, we see violence and war in the media but people don’t feel like it’s your life – or has anything to do with you, but of course we are very much part of it.”

Weather issues aside, Peterson says he loves working in Hong Kong where the commercial and residential are mixed together, creating a unique vibe. Nothing illustrated this vibe better than the sound of a welding machine emanating from a shop near the wall Peterson was working on, blue sparks flying into the air as Peterson quietly spray-painted away. It’s this close connection with the viewer, with the variety of life passing by – an old lady assisted by a helper, a young man walking his dog, kids returning home from school – that also appeals to Peterson.

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“Hong Kong is a great environment to show street art. Not just because you get to display your work next to a old-school shop with a man welding away but because the city is not saturated like other places.

“And I love it because this space,” he says, pointing to the wall, “is like someone’s backyard. It’s a living space. If I was in LA I’d be in a back alley, isolated, somewhere that’s not accessible or visited by people. For an artist, this way of creating is much more interesting, to be able to interact with people on a daily basis, to live and work among the living city.”

“Purity” is on show at The Space, 210 Hollywood Road, until Jan 31