Artist Cleon Peterson’s work is, in many ways, grisly. Again and again in his current show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, he depicts black humanoid figures doing brutal, violent things to white humanoid figures — impaling them with swords, tying and torturing them, cutting off their heads.
The scenes are brutal but not necessarily bloody, because Peterson works in just three colors, black, white and gray. A former graphic designer, his art is reduced to little more than line drawings and simple shadows, reminiscent of the warrior figures you might see adorning a classic Greek vase. There is nothing realistic or necessarily contemporary about them, which removes some of the emotional impact of witnessing the awful things going on.
It’s not quite cartoon violence, but it doesn’t read like a horror movie either, or the graphic reports you might see on TV news. Yes, a naked woman is bound to a tree and poked and prodded by two armed men in the acrylic-on-canvas “Hocus Pocus,” and yes, it is disturbing. But the painting is more about violence in general than the terror imposed on this particular figure; you don’t feel as sorry for her as you do for all of mankind for its appalling nature.
The MCA show isn’t a lot of fun to look at, but it’s clear that Peterson — who acknowledges growing up in an abusive home, falling into heroin addiction and spending time in jail before becoming a painter — is on to something here. This violence is timeless and universal, and there’s no denying it. In fact, as a quality of our species, it prevails over all others.
Curator Adam Lerner understands and indulges what Peterson is saying and takes “Shadow of Men” to an almost unfathomable extreme. He allows Peterson to cover the exterior of MCA building — the entire three-story structure — with giant scenes of knife-bearing man-on-man atrocities, so anyone driving or biking down busy 15th Street gets swatted on the head with it whether they want to or not.
Inside, in addition to showing Peterson’s paintings on the walls and his three-dimensional sculptures on the floor, Lerner lets the artist create massive murals — 40 feet long and 30 feet high — directly on the interior gallery walls. The work ends up in, on and around the MCA; so rarely is art as fully integrated into the place that’s showing it.
There is a lot of violence to be immersed in — sometimes too much. As an illustrator, Peterson isn’t all that hard to read. You get his point from the very beginning of “Shadow of Men” with small paintings like “The Backstabber,” which, of course, depicts a black figure stabbing a bound and pleading white fire in the back.
It’s pretty straightforward, and so maybe we don’t need Peterson’s evil visions rendered in so many shapes and sizes throughout the MCA — the exhibit can feel a little repetitive and over-animated by the end, like a visit to some very big, very cruel Disneyworld.
This treatment serves the art more than it does the viewer, though it serves the art well. If Peterson wants us to contemplate the inevitability of violence, then Lerner has awarded him an availing platform. At the MCA, it is inescapable.
There are unanswered questions in “Shadow of Men” and they can be frustrating. It’s not exactly clear what Peterson intends us to see as all these black figures massacre all these white figures. Metaphorically, you might decode it as the battling forces of darkness and light. Peterson, through his drawings, and Lerner, through his immersive presentation, force us to see this basic human struggle as something that goes on outside in the real world and within our own selves. We wrestle publicly, internally, endlessly.
But there is also no denying the context of the times we live in, which are racially charged and loaded with bitter divisions sparked by violence between blacks and whites. It is part of our consciousness now in America, and it comes into the gallery with us. We cannot separate the colors of stark civic divide from the colors Peterson uses in his work to depict humans.
If it is, after all, just a metaphor, it comes off simplistic. Black equals bad? White equals good? Even “Stars Wars” did that better by mixing it up in a post-modern way and dressing the evil stormtroopers in white armor. Current events get in the way of “enjoying” this art.
Still, it’s hard to blame Peterson for this obstacle or for the twisted visions he paints and sculpts relentlessly. There’s a terrific quote from him on the wall of the MCA, where he proclaims: “I don’t want to refrain from painting my impulses.” Nor do we want him to.
He’s just being true to his vision. He’s compelled to paint violence because he knows the world ought to to see it and contemplate what each of us is capable of. And he’s brave to put it out there, and the MCA is brave to back him. Artists are never just judged for their work; we attach those judgements to the person who makes the work. Peterson allows himself to be vulnerable, to appear insensitive, inept, deranged, even dangerous. But also, fearless.
Cleon Peterson’s “Shadow of Men” continues through May 27 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, 1485 Delgany St. Info at 303-298-7554 or mcadenver.org.