T C Cannon at Peabody through June 10

Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA
Through June 10, 2018

People caught between two cultures often produce fascinating art, especially the type often labeled “outsider art.” We can extol the virtues of hyphenated identity all we wish, but those on both sides of the hyphen often view those who carry bifurcated identities with suspicion. They occupy cultural spaces that practically define the term liminal.

I first saw the paintings of T C Cannon (1946-1978) at the Heard Museum of Art in Phoenix in the 1980s and was instantly drawn to his bold colors, ambiguous facial expressions, and the tensions inherent within a blended body whose Caucasian background (American/French) was valued, but the Indian identity he held most sacred (figuratively and literally) was, at best, exoticized (and often racialized).

In a life cut short by a fatal auto accident in 1978, Cannon explored the borders of several art forms: music, poetry, and painting. Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum has assembled 90 works to shed new light on Cannon’s underappreciated genius. Much of this work is either self-consciously autobiographical or inherited expressions of the collective unconscious as embedded in the Native past. Even the latter was splintered; Cannon’s strongest bloodline was Kiowa, closely followed by Caddo, which isn’t a single tribe or people, rather a confederation of Southeastern groups. And there is also the fact that Cannon came of age during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s. An early painting is of Bob Dylan, but it’s an attempt to capture Dylan’s attitude and vibe, not his exact likeness.

Still others are commentary on the irony of Natives such as himself serving in the very military that sent an Indian lad such as he to Vietnam; Cannon was in the 101st Airborne during 1967-68, a stretch that placed him in the middle of the Tet Offensive. One of the most subversive pieces is deceptively crude and simple: a hastily drawn hangman’s noose that’s labeled “Minnesota.” It’s perplexing unless you know that the largest mass execution in American history took place in Mankato, Minnesota on December 26, 1862, when 38 Dakota Sioux were hanged. It occurred during the Civil War and the president who refused to pardon them was named Lincoln.

Lots of Cannon paintings convey what W.W.B. DuBois called “twoness,” those “two souls … two warring ideals in one dark body.” Several of Cannon’s most powerful works are at core schizophrenic. One cleaves the body in two—the right hand side an Indian proud in his ceremonial paint and braids; the left half a bearded Anglo soldier. Others feature mash ups of Indian garb and military uniforms. Two other canvases satirize Western art by taking one of art’s favorite subjects, the nude Odalisque figure (most famously rendered by Ingres) and pose Indian subjects in the place of Turkish harem slaves. Layer these with as many shaded meanings as you’d like; Cannon intended them all. 

Cannon mostly painted people ill at ease in their cultural time and spaces. There is a haunted lonely quality to canvases such as His Hair Flows Like a River. He gives himself the same treatment in Self-Portrait in the Studio. What is he in this picture? A hippie? A psychedelic cowboy? A John Travolta extra? Or just a playful guy wearing duds so awful they could have only been made in the 1970s?

The Peabody exhibit also features some of Cannon’s poetry. It might not satisfy formalists, but his lines convey power and pain. Do some searching and you might even run across some of his political folk music. Cannon’s Kiowa name was Pal-doung-a-day, “One Who Stands in the Sun.” His rays continue to shed light on ills not yet reconciled.

Rob Weir


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