Fahamu Pecou

Conduit Gallery, Dallas

Through November 24, 2008
by Claire Ruud

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      Fahamu Pecou
      Acrylic on canvas
      66 x 54
      Courtesy the artist and Conduit Gallery

      View Gallery

      Fahamu Pecou’s most recent paintings, now on the walls of Conduit Gallery, are seductively spare. Warn-A-Brother (2008) depicts Pecou in three-quarters profile against a white background on the cover of Spread ArtCulture. Pecou flaunts oversized shades and pops the collar of a white T-shirt bearing the Warner Brother’s insignia and the phrase, “If you see police… Warn-A-Brotha.” The image cuts off at Pecou’s thigh, where large squares of browns and grays serve to censor the area between his unclad legs, in effect drawing attention to his implied phallus. To the left of his hip appears a list of the magazine’s features: Fahamu Pecou in larger letters at the top, followed by Shawn Bell, Amidou Diallo, Abner Louima and Yusef Hawkins. The connections here are apparent. The legend—and threat—of the well-hung black man, the history of police and civilian brutality, and the distrust of the police force transform the magazine’s title, Spread, into the voice of a cop commanding a young black man into a position of passivity and subjection.

      Writers have made much of the distinction between Fahamu Pecou "the image" and Fahamu Pecou "the artist." Often, they set up Pecou the image as a “fake” alter-ego of Pecou the artist, who is, by contrast, “refreshingly down to earth” in NYArts, “bespectacled, soft-spoken, almost retiring” in Atlanta Peach and writer of “erudite manifestoes” in Alarm. The subtext of this distinction seems to be that the artist and the man he depicts are mutually exclusive identities. Writers use their descriptions of a well-mannered, smart artist to validate the work and, even more problematically, to ward off the man they see in his paintings. But Fahamu Pecou is messier than that. In the artist’s most recent paintings, Fahamu Pecou materializes and dematerializes in the paint. It’s impossible to distinguish between “being” and “faking.”

      All seven of the paintings in Pecou’s show at Conduit follow the format of his earlier paintings, placing Pecou on the cover of various art and culture magazines. In earlier work, Pecou set his figure in various locations, such as a barbershop, a wall covered in graffiti, or an artist’s studio, and was often accompanied by female groupies or the paraphernalia of a boxer or an artist. This time, however, Pecou’s compositions are simpler. Canvases are painted white, text is at a minimum, Pecou usually appears alone, nude or semi-nude. Paring down his imagery, Pecou zeros in on his conceptual engagement with black masculinity so that, he says, viewers can’t mistake his work for a sexy commodity without some recognition of political content.

      In these works, Pecou’s painting, and his body, solidifies. The simple compositions draw attention to the artist’s skillful brushstrokes, most notably in the depiction of his body. Set against the white backdrop, stripped down and painted with increased realism, Pecou’s body is more central and more substantial than in previous work. Nonetheless, as in his earlier work, Pecou continuously throws the availability of that body into question. In older work, Pecou often used text to thwart the viewer’s fantasies. Scrawled across the paintings, phrases like, “I can’t b your loverrr,” “and I ain’t been shot a whole buncha times,” and “can’t work da hustle” dissolved viewers’ projections of the sexually available, violent, and lawless black man onto Pecou’s body. Through juxtaposition of his image and text, Pecou simultaneously opened his body up to the viewers’ projections and thwarts them.

      The body seems more present than ever in Pecou’s newer paintings. Nonetheless, the white field seems to overtake parts of the figure in places, particularly around the ankles and feet. White socks pulled up around the ankles blend into the background, truncating the figure at the lower calf. The white soles of shoes can barely be distinguished, an effect that pins the figure down to the canvas by the bottom of his feet. Similarly, shoes painted without shading look heavy and two-dimensional, making the otherwise sculpted, active figure look stuck to the painting. Slipping between two and three dimensions, Pecou’s body is bound by the canvas and yet expands beyond it.

      The paring down of imagery includes the evanescence of the magazine cover. Moving away from the most well-known art periodicals, the magazine’s label is no longer lending currency to Pecou’s image, but the other way around. Now, Pecou’s figure is the trademark that offers cultural capital to younger, lesser-known journals. Correspondingly, Pecou’s selection of magazines has focused on the double entendres he can produce through their titles. In one example, Olympic Torches: the Roof is on FIYAH (2008), he uses esse magazine to raise questions about what it means "to be," in this case presumably, to be a black man. Further, Pecou crosses out and replaces the title of the journal’s most recent issue, actions réciproques, with actions répétées. This choice alludes to theories of being, elaborated most prominently by Judith Butler: we often understand being through repeated actions and, in addition, these ways of being are delimited by a set of historically defined possibilities. In painting another, P.L.D. (2008), he pairs a reference to “We Wear the Mask,” an 1886 poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, with the cover of 2wice. Together, the concepts of masking and doubling suggest the distinction between what people see on the outside of a person and what happens on the inside.

      Slipping between two and three dimensions, between performing and being and between marketed and marketer, Pecou’s paintings suggest the untidy relationships among these terms. When Art Nouveau Magazine asked whether he had received more attention from women “by claiming to be Mr. Pecou,” the artist replied, “I am Mr. Pecou.” He is.

      Claire Ruud is Editor of ...might be good.


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