SALEM, Mass. — Almost more important than the fact of his heritage in absorbing the value of Oklahoma-born artist T.C. Cannon’s work to the landscape of 20th century American art, is the fact that his art career and bodily existence came to an abrupt end in fatal a car accident when he was 31. It seems critical to enter into any reading of what Karen Kramer, the Peabody Essex Museum’s Curator of Native American and Oceanic Art, has assembled here to keep in the forefront of one’s mind that this retrospective, no matter how diverse its mediums and styles, represents an incredibly short career.
With that in mind, the arc of Cannon’s wisdom as an interpreter of his historical moment and sociopolitical location is remarkably wide and colorful — as wide and colorful as the Southwestern backdrops of his most iconic portraits.
At the Edge of America showcases T.C. (Tommy Wayne) Cannon’s (1946–78, Caddo/Kiowa) work in approximately 13 mediums: he writes (both poetry and music); he draws (in graphite, ink, and marker); and he paints (in oil, acrylic, and watercolor, on canvas, paper, horse skull, and on a wall, for a massive mural). Cannon makes woodblock prints and collages; and there’s even one piece of soft sculpture. In his earliest work, the mediums intertwine, and comment on one another. Later on, they take on a distinct style, tone, palette, and energy that transcends medium.
The exhibition divides the work up by subject matter, rather than being purely chronological. But first it sets the stage with an immersive sound and image collage about the 1960s in America — a quick refresher on the textures of the mainstream and counter cultures in which Cannon was immersed. Spread throughout the exhibition are reminders of the particular political situations and daily discriminations with which Indigenous Americans were contending. Most notably, for the duration of Cannon’s short lifetime, the traditional ritual practices of Native American worship were criminalized in the US. Until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act passed (and Cannon was 19), Native Americans were not assured the right to vote in US elections.
The strongest works here are of the variety he’s most known for: rich, intensely colored portraits vibrating with juxtapositions between traditional Native American symbolism and pop culture forms; Southwestern color schemes and European art historical references; and depictions of gestures and body language that hint at the violence in the mundane and an always-looming possibility of erasure. But seeing so much of his work (90 pieces total, 30 major paintings) together brings nuances in his effort and evolution to the surface.
For example, there’s an innocence beforehand, but cynicism kicks in after Cannon spends a year (1968) in Vietnam. Atomic bomb explosions sneak into the backgrounds of several of his images — like a loose, undated watercolor, “Untitled [Self-portrait in front of Village with an Atomic Bomb]” that features Cannon sitting calmly in traditional dress, with a painting of a bomb exploding to the side of his head. Or his 1972 “Untitled [Bombs and Circles],” which is almost abstract and has the cheerful graphic sensibilities of a postage stamp, but which is definitely a bomb when viewed in the context of his other images of mushroom clouds.
After a 1972 two-person show that started at the Smithsonian American Art Museum then toured the world, and his subsequent addition to the roster of a Madison Avenue gallery, true confidence blossoms visibly in Cannon’s work. His portraits — such as “Two Guns Arikara” (1974–77), “Self-Portrait in the Studio” (1975), and “Collector #3” (1974) — become both more confrontational and more intimate. There is also a stream of his work from this period that looks as if he was heavily influenced by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, which seems improbable, but was indeed the case. The bridge between the (by then) New Mexico-based Cannon and the Vienna-based Hundertwasser was their mutual, New York City-based gallerist, Joachim “Jean” Aberbach, who also connected both artists with a master team of Japanese woodblock printmakers, resulting in incredibly fruitful collaborations for both Hundertwasser and Cannon. In Cannon’s case, it’s especially nice to see the tightness of the lines and patterns, and the subtle color shifts produced by converting his images into this format.
Across the show, there are charming moments in both his text-based work and his drawings and paintings that hint at Cannon’s playful sense of humor and earnest search for love. Here and there, there are glimpses of something purely lyrical. This comes up early in one of very few truly abstract works, “Revelation of Standing Sun” (1966) — ‘One Who Stands in the Sun’ being the English translation of Cannon’s Kiowa name — which perhaps alludes to a spiritual, religious, or even psychedelic experience. Later, in one of his most epic works, a mural commissioned by the city of Seattle, “Epochs in Plains History: Mother Earth, Father Sun, the Children Themselves” (1976–77), he gathers several characters pictured in his other works into what feels like the grand vista of time itself. The Peabody Essex Museum has amplified this effect by bringing a contemporary (female-identified) Choctaw musician, Samantha Crain, to compose music for the exhibition. The use of Crain’s song echoes some of Cannon’s early experiments combining music with still imagery — his 1966 oil and acrylic painting “Going Home Shiprock Blues” was accompanied by a Bob Dylan-esque composition of his own making, “Mama and Papa Got the Shiprock Blues.”
Across the entire exhibition, the brightness of his colors and the ardor of his conceptual interplay underscore the aliveness of the conflicts and gestures being depicted. Like the recently passed James Luna, Cannon will not allow his subjects to be flattened into history. With his eye and his brush — not to mention his poems and his songs — he is clearly fighting for and representing living traditions. The main disappointment here is the inevitable one: that mature phases of his art career aren’t in evidence because they never transpired, and that we can’t even guess how he might have responded to the technologies and politics occurring between his death and the present.