SALEM — T.C. Cannon always knew he would die young.
You can almost see it in his paintings, on view in “T.C. Cannon: At the Edge of America,” at the Peabody Essex Museum through June 10. They flame, and not just with sunbaked Southwestern tones. The oppression and violence he came to know as a Native American and a soldier in Vietnam took root in his bones. The best way he had to make sense of it all was through art.
That sounds brooding, but there’s something buoyant and catchy about Cannon’s work. He was a figurative painter, juicing up colors, playing bouncy patterns one against the next. His canvases and woodblock prints are febrile but often sweetly homey, celebrating tribal resilience and family bonds even as they shudder over the devastation wrought by the US government’s brutal theft of Native American life, land, and livelihood.
Cannon, born in 1946, grew up poor in rural Oklahoma. His father was half Kiowa, half Irish, and his mother was Caddo; both were yanked from their homes as children and sent to English-speaking boarding schools. His Kiowa name was Pai-doung-a-day, One Who Stands in the Sun. After high school, he moved to Santa Fe to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts, a progressive college that espoused cultural sensitivity — a new approach for a school administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The school launched Cannon, who early on experimented with a fluid, expressionistic realism like that of Larry Rivers. The first painting in the show, “Mama and Papa Have the Going Home Shiprock Blues,” sets a Native American couple on a bench, perhaps at a bus stop. Space is indeterminate, which makes time equally tenuous, and this couple eternal. The figures repeat below, like a song’s chorus. Paint drips and drifts in olive green and adobe red.
Karen Kramer, the museum’s curator of Native American and Oceanic art and culture, shrewdly weaves Cannon’s original poems and songs throughout the show. She has positioned “Shiprock Blues” with audio of the artist strumming and singing: “well I’ve been out there where the v.c. stay/ I write home most every day/ it don’t seem to ease my pain at all.” His nasal affectation echoes that of his musical hero, Bob Dylan.
Nobody close to Cannon expected him to enlist, but Kiowa value the courage, guile, and tenacity of warriors, and he may have felt the pull of his ancestors. He deployed with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam.
It was an unnerving reversal: The Native American had become the US Army’s man, imposing his government’s agenda on an indigenous people. In “Soldiers,” Cannon splits a man down the middle: half white cavalry soldier, half Native American, both in 19th-century dress. The enemies, two sides of the same coin, strain, but they cannot be pulled apart.
He was young and painfully attuned to injustice at a time when artists such as Barkley L. Hendricks and Bob Thompson were shaking off modernism’s hermetic constraints to examine their own racial and cultural legacies.
Cannon took up the baton for Native Americans. To do it, he mashed up the brushy portraiture and skewed perspectives of van Gogh and the acid color contrasts and pattern play of Matisse.
The subject of the resplendent “Two Guns Arikara” sits, as for a formal photograph. He wears US scout pants and 19th-century Plains Indian jewelry. But this is no sepia print: Purples, blues, and reds soak the canvas; circles pulse woozily in the background like sunspots. The man’s lilac hair flows down from a pompadour. More vibrant than life, he is an unearthly hallucination, or the visitation of an ancestor.
Matisse would have relished “Beef Issue at Fort Sill.” The turquoise sky, the confetti-speckled purple thunderclouds, the simmering red mountains on the horizon, the acid green grass, along with the stripes and polka dots worn by two Native American women, are all a party for the eyes.
But the subject is crushing. In the 19th-century many displaced Native Americans received negligible rations to avoid starvation. The women here butcher a skeletal cow on a cordoned-off patch of grass, which rises to spill the cow’s wormy guts at us. You can sense vultures lurking, and cicadas buzzing ceaselessly in the heat.
Cannon retrieved Native American people, as a subject, from cardboard-thin caricatures spawned by old photos, kitschy paintings, and western films. The men and women he painted are arresting and complicated.
“Indian With Beaded Headdress” blends the past into the present: The old man wears traditional dress — a fierce bear-claw necklace and bracelets above his elbows — but his shirt is purple paisley, and he sits, with a sternly monumental expression, in a nylon-strapped lawn chair. The sky is a flat blue behind him; its clouds float like candy. He has the dignity of centuries, but he’s kicking back. Someone, get him a soda.
In 1976, Cannon was invited by Seattle to paint a mural, “Epochs in Plains History: Mother Earth, Father Sun, the Children Themselves.” It begins in darkness, leads to a vibrant sun dance, and ends with a Native American of the present in a Stetson and jeans. Unlike most of Cannon’s paintings, which sift through the vagaries of history, it is largely triumphant. Choctaw songwriter Samantha Crain has written a song, “One Who Stands in the Sun,” which plays where the mural is displayed.
With Crain’s rippling chords and mournful melody, the majestic mural turns bittersweet. Such is the legacy of the Plains people, and of T.C. Cannon himself, who died in 1978. Driving home late one night in Santa Fe, his car went off the road and into a ditch. He was 31.
T.C. CANNON: AT THE EDGE OF AMERICA
At Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem, through June 10. 978-745-9500, www.pem.org