The Museum of Contemporary Art will look a little different this weekend. Their latest exhibition, opening Friday, February 2, doesn’t just fill the inside of the museum—it takes over the outside as well.

MCA’s front-facing edifice will be covered by one uniform, three-story-high painting by artist Cleon Peterson. Two black and white figures, inspired by classic Greco-Roman pottery and the gruesome paintings of Caravaggio and Goya, spar in what looks like it will be a fatal fight. One warrior, brandishing a dagger, punctures the chest of the other—white blood spills out, down the building.

The rest of Peterson’s exhibit—Shadow of Men—will engulf the museum’s second floor. His paintings balance black, white, and pale neutral hues with sparing elegance of an almost decorative quality. Figures brutalizing one another seem to flow into each other like the shapes of a tessellation, enabling viewers to consider their darkness without feeling shocked or alarmed.

At the same time, MCA will play host to Honestly Lying, a collection of paintings by Denver artist Diego Rodriguez-Warner (whose work the Denver Post once described as “scary and sort of brilliant”), and Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death. The latter, a powerful video installation that confronts America’s dark racial history in a marriage of black visual history and contemporary music, is by acclaimed cinematographer Arthur Jafa. Together, the trio of exhibitions deal with the darker angels of our nature, specifically when it comes to politics, from the perspective of artists at the fringes of the art world.

“This is a moment where our society is coming to terms with its own violent nature, both internal violence, and the violent natures of our culture that are devastating,” says MCA Director Adam Lerner, who curated Peterson’s exhibit. (Zoe Larkins, MCA’s assistant curator, curated Arthur Jafa & Diego’s shows.) “I think that showing an artist whose work externalizes this idea of violence that comes from a very personal place. [Peterson] is a really good example of how our society needs to look at itself and its own violence.”

Lerner says Peterson is the product of a traumatic life. He was raised by a mother who was an adult entertainer and escort, and overcame heroin addiction himself. Peterson went on to earn a BFA in Graphic Design from the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, and an MFA from the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. He got his second chance working for Shepard Fairey, who Lerner says bet on the recovering addict by giving him a job in his workshop.

“He’s doing a body of work that is kind of the next generation, I think, of the genre of the illustration-based street art world, where you find people like Shepard Fairey. So I think it’s work that is very, very valuable to show at this time,” says Lerner. “So much of what you see in street art culture looks to and admires an artist like Cleon Peterson, and yet he’s never had a museum exhibition.”

Learn more: Peterson and Fairey will hold a public conversation on Monday, February 12 at 7 p.m. at the Robert and Judi Newman Center for the Performing Arts Gates Concert Hall at University of Denver, 2344 E. Iliff Ave. Admission is $8–17. Peterson’s exhibit at MCA runs through May 27. Rodriguez-Warner and Jafa’s works will be on display until May 13. 

Haley Gray
Haley Gray
Haley Gray is a Boulder-based freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in 5280, Roads and Kingdoms, Boulder Magazine, and the Albuquerque Journal.