Fahamu Pecou’s large-scale painting The Pursuit of Happiness (all works 2014), also the name of his show on view at Lyons Wier Gallery in New York through October 4, exemplifies the many cultural and critical strands woven into his deceptively simple works. Best known for paintings that riff on magazine covers and deconstruct the popular image of black masculinity, the Atlanta artist embodies a number of alter egos in his satiric self-portraits, not unlike Jayson Musson, whose alter ego Hennessy Youngman hosts the YouTube show Art Thoughtz.
In The Pursuit of Happiness, Pecou depicts himself grabbing his crotch and loosely grasping the long gold shoelaces (painted in gold leaf) that are threaded through his sneakers but that also tie his feet together. He’s shown on the cover of his version of the magazine Dazed & Confused, the hip fashion and culture magazine. Four phrases are painted near the bottom of the piece, typifying the importance of language and word play in his work: Pursuit of Happiness / Per Suit of Happiness / Per Pseudo Happiness/ Pursue Dough X Happiness? The painting asks us to consider—among other things—what it means to be happy, what kind of happiness is achieved through money and fame, and what the narrow societal and cultural guidelines are for happiness if you’re a black man.
Pecou targets popular culture, rap and hip hop as well as the highbrow world of art and culture. In Don’t Feed the Mouth that Bites You II … aka Rep the Trap, he is on the cover of Damnº magazine, an international review of contemporary design, architecture, and art, biting a bunch of heavy gold chains that hang around his neck and then drip in painterly smudges from his mouth. Damnº focuses on worlds that have not traditionally welcomed urban black audiences, an issue Pecou engages with as well.
In a BURNAWAY-commissioned segment for the National Public Radio show StoryCorps earlier this year, Pecou said that the birth of his son inspired him to focus his work more sharply on what it means to be a black man, and this small show—four large paintings and three studies in charcoal—is emblematic of the way he pointedly explores those stereotypes and postures.
In Operation Push, Pecou wears a T-shirt with the words “I Am Sum Body,” in which the “s” is a dollar sign. His materials include acrylic, spray paint, and gold leaf, and his open hands spill what looks like gold dust. The phrase refers to the poem I Am – Somebody, written by the Atlanta pastor William Holmes Borders and made famous during the Civil Rights Movement. The Operation PUSH of the title refers to the social justice organization started by the Reverend Jesse Jackson in the 1970s to promote opportunities for African Americans. In this case, Pecou has painted himself on the cover of Clash magazine, a music and fashion magazine, thereby bringing together elements of pop culture, the music industry, Civil Rights history, and the art world in a smart, sharply observed work that critiques stereotypes by incorporating them.
Jean Dykstra is the managing editor of Photograph magazine in New York.