1 Bowling Green, New York, Ny 10004The National Museum Of The American Indian
T.C. Cannon: At the Edge of America
April 6, 2019 – Sept 16, 2019
T.C. (Tommy Wayne) Cannon painted Native American portraits outside against skies with potato-shaped clouds and in interiors against “magical circle” wallpaper patterns with unlikely color combinations. He transformed the garments and neckwear of his subjects to bring out the gravitas from their faces and posture, creating jolting, psychedelic yet monumental tributes, political in their mere existence and as solid and American as Mount Rushmore.
This show begins with the loosely-rendered Mama and Papa Have the Going Home Shiprock Blues (1966)—not his parents waiting for a bus—but their metaphysical forebearers, poised on the threshold between past and present with one lone word, “dineh” (meaning “The People” in Navajo), behind them. In this most-admired work from his now-legendary Institute of American Indian Arts college days, a blanket-wrapped Navajo woman appears thrice; her male counterpart with cigarette, twice. Wearing traditional textiles and jewelry, and taking turns sporting sunglasses, emptiness echoes in two ghostlike doppelgangers below, boxed separately. Their phantom presences, like their faces, are but a hint of something missing, yet somehow sturdy.
Nearby, a golden depiction of Bob Dylan rendered in oil as a wiry god, 1966, accompanies a recording of Cannon singing. Cannon’s own song lyrics and even his guitar are amply featured. Poetic fragments cascade across walls as well as early paintings and examples of his correspondence. Brass tacks, glued-on bottle caps, scribbles and song lyrics unveil Robert Rauschenberg’s influence. “What’s with Zimmerman?” one work asks.
Curator Karen Kramer expertly divides the show’s canvases into three ideas: “Reckoning” includes this first room, where the young poet-artist reclaims America as Indian country, grappling with identity, assimilation and permission via George Custer, Wounded Knee and the ’60s. In “Representation,” Native American’s overly simplified depiction in movies and art is rescued from romanticism. Cannon’s prowess at drawing, then painting the faces of Native people is strongly evident from letters and sketchbooks to literal icons on canvas that dominate his oeuvre’s second act. Each Indian face reflects dignity, respect and seriousness, the centerpiece of this important, must-see show, reminiscent of Charles White’s powerful African-American portraits at MoMA last year. Yet, despite the strength portrayed in Cannon’s Native American faces, it is not unusual for eyes to linger in the shadows cast by hands or hat brims shielding his subjects from the sun—and perhaps us.
Kramer’s third contextual delineation is “Renewal.” Cannon’s deep interest in spirituality, existentialism and mysticism celebrates ritual, dance and prayer. In Three Ghost Figures (1970), Buffalo Dancers (1970s), Pueblo Woman Dancer (1972–78), and Those Close to the Heart of God (1976), Cannon bravely rescues indigenous ceremonial practices banned even until shortly after his premature death in 1978. And in the aforementioned “psychedelic” portraits, Cannon shows Indians practicing their religion legally, which they were not.
Cannon enlisted and served in Vietnam from ’66 to ’68 in the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division, living to tell the tale—only to die in an automobile accident nine years after his return. A multimedia presentation about his conflicted war experience surrounded by artwork he did there, and a nearby area dedicated to sketchbooks and letters home, informally trace his ever-improving ability to capture his people—in either sublime landscapes or in rooms exploding with fantastic, saturated colors.
Finally, with his 22 foot long Epochs in Plains History: Mother Earth, Father Sun, the Children Themselves (1976–77), an epic mural commissioned by the city of Seattle, a narrative in oil completed one year before his death, our reintroduction to Cannon ends as it began—powerfully—but with questions about a life cut too short.