click here to download a copy.







Essay by Molly Barnes

Shirley Cannon is an abstract artist who paints imagined forces of nature, large, mysterious, and loosely textured. She includes collage to show the visceral beauty as well as the desecration of the earth. The highly dynamic paintings in the current exhibit are like satellite photographs of the earth before people appeared on the scene. Cannon’s works suggest the desultory complexity of nature alongside the underlying darkness. As we look at the heavily textured paintings, the work seems to undulate back and forth in space, using the push/pull technique of Abstract Expressionism.

Cannon says, “I paint layer after layer until I get a sense of the earth we inhabit.” Indeed, since September 11 th, the art world has retreated into a kind of return to nature as a spiritual answer to the destruction for which we were not forewarned.

Cannon grew up near the coal mines of West Virginia. She was a coal miner’s daughter who left West Virginia at age seventeen, largely to escape the coal dust that permeated everything she saw and touched. Although she got away from the area, the coal has never left her and art has become about that place. To initiate the dramatic abstractions that follow, she begins many of her paintings with a nude body print of herself done in coal dust, followed by heavy texturing, collaged with paint and fiber.

For twenty years after she left West Virginia, Cannon ran, first to Ohio, then to Arizona, where she got her BFA at the University of Arizona, and then to California, where she received her MFA at Cal State Los Angeles.

She works with layers of Japanese rice paper glued onto mahogany panels, and then combines them with fibers, Fixall, various construction materials, varnish and oil. She works every day in her Santa Monica studio with the precision of Rene Magritte. This is her business and her life. Sometimes a painting takes as long as two years to complete.

The thirty paintings in the exhibit were all done in the past three years. “Amber Nest,” a huge triptych, completed in 2001, is a masterpiece. It is an amalgam of dark mahogany, swirling rusts and fiery reds that seem related to early New York abstract expressionists Ernest Briggs and Franz Kline. As with the others in the series, she starts with a body print of herself in coal dust and abstracts from there, merging form and gesture with a bravado rarely seen today. It’s almost like a stage setting for the beginning of the earth.

Asked why people need art today, Cannon answers, “Art gives them a way of looking at the world and the earth that they wouldn’t normally do on their own. Life is chaotic. Art is calming.” When asked why no people inhabit her empty landscapes, Cannon answers, “My work is without people in the usual sense. People make life chaotic. However, I always begin with that chaos and then take the work back to a different state.

“Bituminous Veins,” done in 2002, is composed of oil, tar, paper and charcoal. It is slightly different from the others in that the primary color is green, perhaps a step forward in the new evolutionary chain. The surfaces seem rounded and undulating in a style that suggest Phillip Guston in his earlier years.

Cannon’s favorite artists come as no surprise: Alberto Burri, a doctor/surgeon who sewed and carved into his canvases and professed, “I am not a naturalist. I am natural;” Anselm Kiefer, with his choices of transient materials; and Italo Scanga, with his helter-skelter streaks of bleeding reds and his textured surfaces. Scanga was Cannon’s mentor and this exhibit is a testimonial to his influence.

Straddling painting and collage, Shirley Cannon impressively mixes and matches sparkling glimpses of the moment of creation with the mysterious shadowy underside. She is a true practitioner in the tradition of magic. Cannon controls the spectator’s reaction to her work. This is the mark of a great painter.

Molly Barnes is an art dealer and curator based in Los Angeles and New York.



Essay by Peter Frank

The American and European abstract painting of the years immediately following the Second World War is notable for its gestural quality; the presence of the hand – of the “maker” – is felt everywhere. As notable in the painting of this period from New York and San Francisco, Paris and Barcelona, Copenhagen and Milan, is a quality of transcendence – transcendence of picture, transcendence of place, transcendence of individual sensibility. Vast expanses of texture and/or incident, color and/or shape (that is, near-shapelessness) cover every inch of canvas (or panel, or paper) in a new rendition of metaphysical space. Abstract Expressionism, tachisme and Cobra apotheosized the landscape, and the landscape – despite Pop art (or even because of it, in its maintenance of Abstract Expressionist scale) – has never been the same.

Especially in her latest paintings, Shirley Cannon takes up where Abstract Expressionism and Art Informel leave off. Her oils, often mixed with tar, sand, and other naturally occurring (if industrial-strength) materials, brim with gesture, but gesture brought to such a froth that any trace of the human hand disappears into the visceral agitation. There is no brushstroke as such in Cannon’s new series; the movement of substance on surface is the movement of mud in an avalanche, magma in the earth’s bowels, clouds in a storm-rent sky, even the tumult of celestial matter in the birth of stars and galaxies – all at chaotic pitch, before the vast schemata of natural complexity impose their coherent patterns.

Cannon paints geologic wounds and scars, the myriad insults visited by forces much larger than humankind upon the earthly epidermis. The ecological message in these volcanic similitudes is not that we cause so much stress to the ball of muck we ride on, but that the ball itself can take a lot more than we can dish out. We can mangle our ecosystem all we like; the earth will be the earth no matter how thin its atmosphere, how poisonous its seas, and will continue to rotate and revolve, erupt and quake whether we’re around or not.

Cannon’s paintings thus pay their own small homage to that in nature which inspires awe in the human beholder. Other painters have evoked such sublime terror in their renditions of the sea’s vastness, or the eternal wheeling of the heavens; and in the work of postwar gestural abstractionists the force of natural matter was itself unleashed upon the canvas. (“I am nature,” Jackson Pollock once said – arrogating to himself not the godliness that some have supposed he meant, but simply the naturalness of his being human and the naturalness of the materials with which he painted.)

However rooted in late-modern gesturalism, with its insistence on self-referentiality, Cannon hearkens back to the aesthetic contemplation of nature that motivated Monet and Cezanne, Turner and Constable, Ruysdael and Rembrandt, Tintoretto and Titian. However much these artists incorporated their renditions of natural images within the ideological agendas of their eras, their work holds such fascination for us in part because it is suffused with their hunger for natural effect (and, indeed, affect). Cannon shares that hunger, and the ideology of her time allows her to sate that hunger with the rawness of neo-modern elementalism, unexalted by and unencumbered with even the existential aspirations of her Abstract Expressionist predecessors. What one sees in a Cannon painting is a direct evocation, for its own sake, of natural upheaval, of the restlessness of worlds and minerals and atoms.

Cannon, need it be noted, is painting this natural condition with natural substances. She spices her paints with materials exotic to traditional painting, and, of course, her oils themselves are naturally based. Some of this stuff might in fact be synthetic; but here, again, Pollock’s declaration rings true. All this – all of it – is nature. For even those things we are able to manufacture through chemical manipulation occur naturally, otherwise they wouldn’t exist. Nature would not permit them. The gritty effulgence of Cannon’s swells and skeins seems to aver that art is the appreciation not only of what nature achieves, but of what it allows.

The most dramatic message in Cannon’s work is that art can be this rough, unadorned, thrillingly homely approximation of nature – not a simulacrum of natural forces, which would infer a masking, a substitution, a Disneylandization of the experience of contact with nature, but a metaphorical interpolation of these unbounded, unboundable energies onto rectangular planes. Thus distilled, Cannon’s interpolation is basically pictorial. But in its tactility, its reliance on facture, it is more than just an image of nature; it is a slice of nature, a recapitulation on human scale of forces and sensations otherwise too large to tame into art. Ultimately, of course, those forces and sensations are too large to tame into anything; but our hubristic attempts to dam rivers and predict storms do effect a certain taming of nature, while art like Cannon’s respectfully remains on the level of reflection.

In this respect Cannon’s art mediates between Abstract Expressionism and the artistic interventions in nature realized as Earthworks. Her work is more directly reflective of natural sensation than was the gestural painting of the 1950’s, although she does not physically enter and modify the landscape as did the post-conceptual Land artists of the early 1970’s. If Cannon’s work is not in or on the land, however, it is of the land, resonant with earthiness in its mineral tonalities and its coarse textures as well as its microcosmic restaging of geologic violence.

In Shirley Cannon’s painting the human hand reduces to pictorial size not nature itself, but the human imagination and senses as they are fired by nature. Her canvases, finally, embody the attempt of human perception to embrace the unembraceable, yet infinitely desirable, natural passion. They do not ultimately “capture” nature; but, then, we humans do not ultimately achieve immortality. It is precisely in the magnificent impossibility of the attempt that Cannon’s paintings truly excite us.

Peter Frank is a Los Angeles Art Critic and Museum Curator




Essay by Mat Gleason

With her emphasis on texture, artist Shirley Cannon as produced a large body of work that has a formal relationship in the gray area between painting and sculpture. Her work’s third dimension is too sensual to pass up. It reminds us that we are all wrapped in a baggage of sorts. While looking at past catalogs of her work and recalling her many wonderful exhibitions that I have attended for over a dozen years, it dawned on me that she may be the only artist whose work has always been paintings of sculptures. Essential to their presentation is the defined separation of illusionary space on a wall (the hallmark of painting). And yet, within that space is a luscious, actually sculpted depth, creased, frayed, torn, filled, dripping, scabbing – so viscous and alive, so rotting and dead. A poem dedicated to flesh that we know will fester, to beautiful Spring days that we know disappear with night, to the ephemeral nature of botany and biology; Shirley sees to it that this temporary state, this flux, is preserved. Too warm to be called frozen, too alive to be labeled relics, Shirley presents permanent organic moments.

But the mark of a mature artist is to make art that does more than one or two simple things. Shirley can sculpt and create a mood, but it is her facility with color that convinced me early on of her gift, of her greatness. Her chroma comes from the rich metaphorical vein between landscapes that are seen and those that are unseen, between figures which are touched and those that are violated. There is a mood, produced by her color that almost always runs counter to the sculptural construction in her paintings. When the texture is about to repulse you, her color has made you too serene to leave or even cringe for very long. When there is a harmony, a neo-nature in her built-up surfaces, the color curdles into disharmony, creating an inverse tension.

The consistent subtext in all of Shirley’s work is an acknowledgment that the unknown is to be rightly feared, the murkiness to be mistrusted, but she is not the fine art cousin of Kafka. A more likely pairing with Jack London would underscore her acceptance of the risks of the unknown, but her refusal to back off in pursuing, in exploring, conquering and harnessing all that is beautiful and all that is ugly to create the most natural and delicate harmony. The optimism in these works, therefore, is a belief not in the narrow confines of abstraction (as an art theorist would have it), but in the expansive vision of meeting fear by looking at its face. To control the natural world, one must be immersed. To conquer our fear of death, one must know the temporariness of the flesh. Shirley Cannon presents these painted planes of sculpted life and nature to repulse us into embracing.

Mat Gleason is a Los Angeles writer. He is the founder and publisher of Coagula Art Journal.




By Dr. J. S. M. Willette

Perhaps the only thing in the world that is blacker than coal is the interior of the earth. Here, darkness, unbroken and unquestioned, is palpable and has a velvet feel. Silence is overflowing and full, blocking the ears, and the quickened breath is an echo of the heartbeat inside. Sound reverberates hollowly as laborers carve out the earth from the inside, seeking its treasures. Shirley Cannon remembers her origins in coal mining country. It is a terrain of raw and troubled gashes and pits and tunnels, inhabited by people in black-face who risk their lives for lumps of carbon. And seeping out of disturbed seams, are noxious gases and fumes, poetically named, “Black Damp” and “White Damp,” that kill miners with the utmost discretion, without mercy. Black Damp mysteriously ignites itself and White Damp utters the smell of violets at the moment of asphyxiation.

Cannon is fascinated with the combination of beauty and death and the interconnectedness of the body and the earth from which it comes and to which it must return. She looks at the magnified skin on her hand and sees how it resembles the surface of planets and understands a limned and sacred geometry that is timeless. Her huge and dark paintings are upheavals and disturbances: landscapes with figures that have been amplified to abstraction and re-embodied through the selection of materials. Black Damp is on a mahogany panel, covered with canvas and with a rice paper base that is, in turn, overlaid with polyfoam, tar, acrylic and oil paint, tarpaper and tar mixed with coal. At the heart is a found object, a steel circle, resting on the coal and tar triptych, an ossified spiral nebula. Huge and physical, dominating its space, the landscape by Cannon becomes a new site, combining beauty and death and rhyming a poem about the black that is brought up from the dark.

Dr. J. S. M. Willette teaches contemporary art and critical theory in the Los Angeles area.



Folio Bresciano Cultura Libri & Societa

Elena Micheletti


“California Dream” Four-location exhibition of selected California artists.

The exhibit “California Dream” curated by Albano Morandi, has been an interesting panoramic of Californian contemporary art. The show spread across four locations (L.A.B.A., Lumezzani, Sarezzo and Tavernole) by fifteen artists who wanted to express the richness of creative languages of one of the most intellectually significant cities. Los Angeles, already home to famous masters like Sam Francis or David Salle.

Torre Avogadro Museum completes the exhibition, dedicating its spaces to SHIRLEY CANNON. As an artist of a consolidated technique, she presented in Lumezzane recent works in which it was possible to detect an erudite style that without the use of a traditional form of expression describes universal feelings in an impressive manner.

Harmony is achieved with various color stratifications associated with an expert use of discoloring tints. Her canvases are later carved and the color mutates transmitting a consistent sense of subtle violence. Maybe the “American Dream” is in fact the one to confirm how an artistic scenery of such a wide view – that goes from minimalism to symbolic realism experiences, from assemblage to the conceptual art making – is able to keep the artist at the center of the attention with her strong creative personality.

Stile arte

Treviso, Casa dei Carraresi

…….As per SHIRLEY CANNON, her oils, often mixed with tar, sand and other materials present in nature (even if industrialized), are filled with gestures, but of gestures expressed with such lightness that any trace of human touch disappears in the turmoil of passion. Cannon’s new series don’t show a brush touch as such: the movement of the substance on the surface is like the movement of mud in an avalanche, of the magma deep inside the Earth, of the clouds in the stormy sky, even the tumult of the celestial matter when the stars and galaxies began, the whole thing in a chaotic tone, before the wildest schemes of natural complexity would impose its consistent structures. CANNON paints geologic wounds and scars, countless inflicted offences by forces much more than the ones of the human race of terrestrial surface. All of the “California Dream” exhibitions will close on November 10.

“Giornale di Brescia”


A fragment of Los Angeles has now moved to Brescia and Valtrompia with the show, “California Dream.” The fact that the artists are spread through four different locations is to emphasize that our social and city planning has also become scattered.

The Mother Earth perceived at an embryonic stage is SHIRLEY CANNON’S theme. Inspired by her friend, Italo Scanga, this coal miner’s daughter escaped from the dusty West Virginia coal mines to the beautiful “bright light” of California. The magnificent Torre Avogadro exhibit in Lumezzane reveals a sensation of gestation and pain, tingling and flowing. Her canvases are filled with organic and biological materials. She starts her works with carbon body prints of herself on heavy wood panels, and then continues with layers of Japanese rice paper, Fixall, tar, oil paint and fibers. She expresses an anxious romantic research of her roots through a relationship with nature using heavy and drippy materials. She follows a limy, liquid or magmatic rhythm: colors and fibers are live flowing forces that mutate and organize natural energies into spiritual forms. She also evokes the German artist, Kiefer. In these cases her work isn’t as weeping, but more filled with a natural transcendentalism of the American traditional scenery.



TAPPING A VEIN – Solo Exhibition at West Virginia University’s Laura Mesaros Gallery

Wayne Milstead

Shirley Cannon has come full circle. Standing in the middle of the Laura Mesaros Gallery at the West Virginia University Creative Arts Center, the art inspired by her coal mining childhood in National, West Virginia surrounds her.

She’s been away for a while, but the colors, textures and people of the coal camp of her yout6h have remained imbedded in her soul.

While Cannon deals mainly in abstraction, her earlier work as more figurative. She says boredom with that genre led her to experiment with latex. “I wanted to move on and learn something new, so I started using latex to symbolize the human body, to put the figure, so to speak, in the landscapes. The latex is just like us, it cracks, dries up, wrinkles and eventually it disintegrates and falls down into the coal.”

It was during this experimentation with latex that she began to think about the earth. These thoughts opened a vein emotionally and artistically for Cannon, as she realized how the themes related to who she was as a West Virginian. “My art has always been about people. A few years later I became interested in the physical mining of the earth, but also interested in the personal mining of the heart or the soul.

The combination of beauty and toxicity fascinates Cannon. It is a common theme in her work. Cannon tells the story of a sulfur creek near her home where she used to play as a child. The color was beautiful, but the environment was so toxic at the same time. “I’m really interested in how something beautiful and something toxic can exist simultaneously. I don’t think there are that many blacks and whites in the world,” she says.

One revealing moment occurred in Cannon’s Santa Monica studio. It was unbearably hot and she was pushing around buckets of coal she was using for an installation piece. By the end of the day she was sweaty and covered with coal. When she arrived home, she noticed the black hand prints branded on everything she touched. She looked in the mirror and realized she looked like her father used to look after a day in the mines. That moment served as the inspiration for the coal body prints on rice paper that appear in the exhibit.

She will offer a slide lecture today about her work. Until then, she’s reconnecting. Her fingers are black from breaking blocks of coal in the parking lot of the gallery with her cousin. (He brought her a half ton to use in her exhibit. “There’s no way I was going to ship coal to West Virginia,” she says.) She points out a photo floating in a metal tray at the bottom of a piece called Carbuncle. It’s of her father. He’s wearing a ring. The same ring she’s now wearing. “It’s important to go away, but it’s also important to return,” she says.




A New Show at the University of Arizona Museum of Art Draws Inspiration From Appalachian Coal Mines

Margaret Regan

……..A series of body print pictures is another ghostly reminder of the people who work the mines. They call to mind those classic Depression-era photographs of miners covered with black coal dust, but with a twist. Cannon calls the process she used to make them a ritual cleansing in reverse. The woman in the pictures, presumably Cannon, deliberately covered her body with the dust and then consciously rid herself of it, delivering the dust onto paper to convert it into art. Assembled into wall triptychs, the body print works are reminiscent of altarpieces. “Near Caretta,” with a coal-dust man and woman on either side of a stripe of molten metallic gold, creates an Adam and Eve of the mines. It’s a portrait of vulnerable human beings helplessly caught in a time and place not of their choosing. They push their hands forward, as though searching for a way out…….