T.C. Cannon at the Peabody Essex Museum: Representation and Cultural Struggles

TC Cannon:  Beef Issue at Fort Sill: http://www.tccannon.com

You might call this one of my first posts in the “Ekphrasis and Qualitative Research” series, in which the notion of representation is going to loom large. Hold on to that thought. File it for later. For the moment let’s just focus on the T.C. Cannon exhibit at the Peabody Art Museum.


It was juxtaposed next to an exhibit on Georgia O’Keefe’s work, and it was that exhibit I had originally come to see. It was only when I exited the O’Keefe exhibit that I wandered into the Cannon exhibit. Both have strong ties to the Southwest, but that’s about where it ends. O’Keefe is very distanced and controlled. Color and shape evolve slowly and carefully. Cannon’s world explodes (like his name); short, brilliant, colorful, and politically provocative. I bought the catalog for the Cannon show (At the Edge of America, 2018); I’d have to say I am kind of over O’Keefe.

Cannon, who is American Indian of mixed native heritages, places Native American concerns front and center in the body of work he created during his short life (he died in his 30’s in a car crash). He is a creature of the 1960’s and 1970’s, a Viet Nam war veteran, Dylan and the Beatles will chime in your head as you review his paintings.

In regard to the notion of representation (which will be tied in later posts to the notion of ekphrasis), Cannon is concerned with the plight of the American Indian in contemporary life. This concerns leads, in his case, to violent juxtapositions of materials, colors, and content. In his painting “Beef Issue at Fort Sill”, completed in 1973, the carcass of a dead steer dominates the foreground, entrails visible within the cavity of the opened belly. Dogs sniff around the edges, while two Indian women in traditional clothing and braided hair, are metaphorically “put on pause” in the midst of the task of the butchering. At Fort Sill, Indians were provided the beef as rations to prevent starving. It is a memory of the past and yet the women and their cultural position vis-à-vis society, economics, and politics has changed little, making this a timeless scenario.

Cannon’s art work includes more than the visual art. He was also an accomplished poet and the poems and pictures are skillfully connected in the exhibit. There is also evidence he was a skilled guitar player.

This exhibit forces me to think hard about issues of representation, what is Indian, what is modern, what is historical, what is visual art, what is poetry? Cannon’s work makes hash of traditional containers of cultural representation. He was clearly remixing these representations into the new forms that would carry us into this century.

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