Cleon Peterson’s “DAYBREAK,” shadowy figures mete out violence in images that could just as well depict justice as they do barbarity. ““DAYBREAK” can be viewed as both a continuation and a progression of Peterson’s past works, in which graphically rendered scenes of sadism portray chaos as the inevitable order of things. Many of those scenes have featured characters with physical appearances largely undifferentiated from one another, suggesting a classless unsympathetic society, yet in this new body of work Peterson incorporates “shadow” figures and a new dichotomous order. There are haves and have-nots, but amid the havoc it’s hard to decide who’s who.
The exhibition draws inspiration and its title from Nietzsche’s Daybreak: Reflections on Moral Prejudices. Like Nietzsche, Peterson presents a world in which contrasting schemes of morality result in eruptive hostility between social classes. In Nietzsche’s work, this dichotomy is described as master-slave morality: the tension between an overclass that values pride, wealth and strength and an underclass that values humility, piety and restraint. While Nietzsche claims that the people of the underclass choose this morality to soothe the cognitive dissonance of hegemony, Peterson’s “ DAYBREAK” insinuates that through violence they are breaking free not only from their oppressors but an oppressive morality as well. This role reversal, however, creates an interesting dilemma: when a revolt upends the power structure, which sides do virtue and vice end up on? Can either class be considered virtuous if they literally beat the other to death with morals?
While the “shadows” in violent revolt may conjure comparisons to famous uprisings such as the Warsaw Ghetto and Soweto, viewers can also draw a parallel to Carl Jung’s notion of the “shadow aspect” of the psyche, an archetype that “personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself.” In Jung’s theory, the more the shadow is repressed and buried, the more discord it creates in the subject’s unconscious. Relatively, Peterson, depicts an upheaval that embodies these inner workings of the individual that can easily correspond to the mechanisms of society.
One thing that remains clear throughout “DAYBREAK” is the incongruity of insensate cruelty and acute suffering. Though their acts are purely savage, the “shadows” hardly show signs of malignancy in their reductive facial features. Their motions are calculated, their postures balanced, athletic and mechanical. Their victims, by contrast, appear defenseless and in shock, often wearing expressions of horror reminiscent of the targets in Goya’s painting The Third of May 1808. They are not, however, powerless in all senses, if the backdrops of topiaries and foyers suggest anything. Ultimately, it’s up to the viewer to take sides and feel sympathy or schadenfreude, indignation or catharsis.