Tenderness and angst define Pecou’s impressive show

Artist Fahamu Pecou is one of the funniest, most pop culture-savvy artists in Atlanta: his paintings and performance pieces have mocked the hip hop ethos of preening, peacock bravado and also the too-big-for-his-britches attitude of the contemporary art star. Pecou has often engaged in a sly game of subverting stereotypes about what black identity is with the deft chops of a Chris Rock and the historically incisive attitude of contemporary artists like Renee Cox and Hank Willis Thomas.

But Pecou strikes a very different note in his stunning solo show “Gravity” at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia. There are echoes of the old Pecou here, in the integration of hip hop and street style, but at its core “Gravity” is dead serious, and a surprisingly tender show that again puts the artist center stage in an examination of race and masculinity.

Pecou’s canny take on the codes of race mean that his self-portrait persona in “Gravity” is a shirtless man with jeans riding low and ridiculous layers of boxer shorts peeking out. Pecou sends up the swaggering black urban youth convention of sagging pants held up with one hand gripping the waistline. But what he does with that convention is lyrical and heartbreaking, showing vulnerability for an image that would more typically unleash a tongue-clucking indictment of “kids today.” In Pecou’s enormous canvases his figure stands lost in a sea of empty space, emphasizing a feeling of isolation. With one hand he holds his britches — which become as much a tether to the ground as ball and chain — while engaged in the seemingly impossible act of taking flight, hurling his body into space with a ferocious avidity. These conflicting actions, of gripping his pants to keep them from falling, and reaching for the sky suggest conflicting gestures of defiance and doubt.

At its heart “Gravity” is about a desire for escape cruelly stopped by the laws of gravity, though the force of gravity here is a metaphor for all the other forces: racism, fatalism, depression, oppression, fear, that keep his figure from attaining air time. In the acrylic on canvas painting “Atmospheric Pressure,” Pecou’s figure has his back to us, and hunches his torso like someone waiting to take a blow, shielding his head from impact.

The show’s somber tone is set by a sound installation “Sky is the Limit.” A low white pedestal holds a speaker playing a succession of samples from the hip hop canon including Lil Wayne and Kanye West’s recording of the gospel standard “I’ll Fly Away.” The artist has chosen songs that prominently feature the motif of flight, and the somber, urgent bits and pieces of music softly playing embellish the mood of the entire show, of desire mixed with despair and the promise that both art and spirituality offer, that your mind must on some level escape earthly pain even if your body cannot.

In one of the most touching gestures, Pecou has included a series of six watercolors created by Atlanta artist Charles H. Nelson, who died in 2009. Pecou dedicates “Gravity” to Nelson, a beloved figure on the Atlanta art scene, whose work—like Pecou’s—used humor and intelligent commentary, to examine identity and race and to show how one man’s struggle is tied to the struggle of many. Nelson’s “Invisible Man” series took a similarly somber, heartfelt look at the circumstance of being black and feeling invisible, in fragile watercolors featuring the artist. The works feels not just spiritually, but stylistically connected to Pecou’s quartet of pencil drawings across the room splattered with a wash of sepia paint that spreads across his figure like the blood blossoming from a wound.

A hoped-for transcendence in “Gravity” runs head-on into all of the social forces that keep such dreams and aspirations in check in this graceful, understandably anguished exhibition.

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