The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2023

All Issues
MAY 2023 Issue

King Cobra: White Meat

Installation view: <em>King Cobra: White Meat</em>, JTT, New York, 2023. Courtesy the artist and JTT, New York. Photo: Charles Benton.
Installation view: King Cobra: White Meat, JTT, New York, 2023. Courtesy the artist and JTT, New York. Photo: Charles Benton.

On View
JTT Gallery
April 11–May 13, 2023
New York

What happens when whiteness is put on display? This is the question at the heart of King Cobra’s White Meat, a show that illuminates the sadism, power, and playfulness of the artist even as it portrays varieties of whiteness as threat, as diseased, and as contagion. Cobra, as a self-described joker, reverses Black objectification and woundedness by ripping apart white flesh and making it into a consumable product—meat. By placing it within the landscape of desire and commodification, Cobra lays bare the consequences of making whiteness not only visible, but material.

Cobra signals this shifted orientation toward visuality in multiple ways. Whiteness is no longer taken for granted as the invisible universal. Harsh fluorescent lighting and steel cages highlight and encase several of the works, making it feel as though these sculptures and what they represent are barely contained. In this guise, whiteness is not a docile subject—its danger and toxicity percolate. In THE PALE ONE (2020) a sculpture that appears to depict endless hunger, one can peer through pale “skin” riven with bumps and crevices made from pearls and crystals and pierced by barbed wire to see a slit. The work is suspended from a chain within a steel cage and surrounded by yellow fluorescent lights. Reading the opening as vulval opens us toward a conversation about the myriad ways white femininity has presented itself as vulnerable while actually operating as a threat. Likewise, When You Are Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea (2022), a cross-section of a 13-foot great white shark, whose skin appears scarred by syphilis and smallpox, reminds us of the pandemics unleashed by colonialism as well as the weaponization of sharks by slavers who used the animals to prevent escape of captives from slave ships. We see the shape of a dark brown figure in its belly, as well as an unmistakable human foot. The steel and fluorescent lighting tube structure that keeps the shark suspended in an echo of its arrested digestion suggests a temporality of the ongoing; in other words, history doesn’t quite recede into memory.

King Cobra, <em>Salome's Revenge</em>, 2023. Silicone, flocking powder, tattoo ink, dirt from J. Marion Sims's grave, deli slicer, acrylic, 17.5 x 20.5 x 18 inches. Courtesy the artist and JTT, New York. Photo: Charles Benton.
King Cobra, Salome's Revenge, 2023. Silicone, flocking powder, tattoo ink, dirt from J. Marion Sims's grave, deli slicer, acrylic, 17.5 x 20.5 x 18 inches. Courtesy the artist and JTT, New York. Photo: Charles Benton.

Sometimes, however, Cobra actively rewrites history by undoing monuments to famous white men. The first nine presidents of the United States are individually represented on her wall of crackers made from silicone, each with its own variation of jaundiced pallor and differing degrees of bruising, disease, and sparse hair—abjection itself. The flaccidity of the crackers is underscored by the thick shmear of a semen-colored goopy substance attaching them to their red squares. This echo of the substances of cream pies and mayo sandwiches found elsewhere in the gallery communicate the contrast between the impotence of these men in the present day and Cobra’s agency and vitality in this exhibit’s production and critique of their legacies.

King Cobra, <em>First Cracker</em>, 2023. Silicone, flocking powder, tattoo ink, steel nails o
King Cobra, First Cracker, 2023. Silicone, flocking powder, tattoo ink, steel nails o

Salome’s Revenge and Fuck Baloney (both 2023) both also work on the register of disempowering whiteness in their dismantling of the legacy of J. Marion Sims, the infamous white gynecologist who used Black enslaved women for his medical experiments. Sims has been a subject of previous performances of revenge by Cobra, and Salome’s Revenge features a silicone bust of the doctor (mixed with dirt from his grave) midway through being carved up by a deli slicer while Fuck Baloney assembles some of these slices into a giant baloney round. The critique Cobra offers is clear, and it is worth reflecting on the potent sensorial world of these works. Here, whiteness has been made small and unpalatable, and therefore its power is easily cast aside.

More affectively complex because of the ways in which they implicate the viewer are Cobra’s reflections on complicity with whiteness. Rat King (2023), a large chain necklace of dreadlocked straight hair with bits of pink scalp attached comments on the colonial history of scalping in the United States, white forms of cultural appropriation, and the self-sabotaging practices of rats. In Cobra’s “White Assholes” series (2023), silicone casts of pink-toned anuses (with their skin in various stages of disease) and butts are suspended by chains in front of mirrors such that you cannot see them without catching your own face in the reflection, the artist’s most direct mobilization of complicity. Finally, A White Painting Just for Me (2023) which features curly hair on brown leather swimming in silicone goop as hair relaxer—signaled by empty bottles of Just For Me Step 1A and Just For Me Step 1B hair relaxers—brings the problem of whiteness into the realm of practices of assimilation. Here we see that one needn’t be white in order to negotiate the contagion of whiteness—its standards of beauty exact punishment regardless of skin tone. Importantly, these sculptures do not position the dangers of whiteness as perils of the past but as components of everyday contemporary life. Disturbing, domestic, and insidious; this is whiteness in its uncanny mode.


Amber Jamilla Musser

Amber Jamilla Musser is Professor of English at CUNY Graduate Center and the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (NYU, 2014) and Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance (NYU Press, 2018).


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2023

All Issues