Inches upon inches of slopping creamy mayonnaise leak out of a sandwich. These towering tiers of Hellmann’s are slathered in queasy quantity as if splattered on by a particularly enthusiastic deli worker. Oozing drips of the substance fall in layers onto a bed of Astroturf like eggy discharge. This mayo sandwich’s revolting recipe is not saved by the choice of bread either. Two slices of putrid pink flesh-colored carbs look mottled as if growing mold while simultaneously erupting in scabs, purple and green-tinged bruises, and boils. Just imagine taking a huge enthusiastic bite as squirts run down your chin. Mmmmm…delicious! No? Is that you retching?!
A robust capillary-popping dry heave seems to be an appropriate reaction to King Cobra (formerly documented as Doreen Lynette Garner)’s sculpture Mayo Sammy, just one of the many grotesqueries on view in her current exhibition White Meat at JTT. Here, Cobra takes white people’s strange adherence to this white goo (the color is not unimportant) to absurd heights as disease-riddled white flesh literally embraces our chosen condiment or at least a silicone approximation of it. Is equating whiteness with mayo a stereotype? Sure. Is it untrue? Absolutely not. Finally, someone understands how much mayo I want when I ask for extra on my sandwiches.
Mayonnaise is not the only food product associated with whiteness that Cobra wields as an inspiration and a weapon in White Meat. Crackers, covered in poppable pustules, stick in a cum-like slash of mayonnaise as if unceremoniously thrown at a wall (or, in this case, a ruby-red background). Bologna, equally blemished as the pre-sliced loaf of white bread in Mayo Sammy, rests in slimy sheets around a tondo panel, an updated version of all those whites in Renaissance paintings. In both instances, like her mayonnaise, Cobra has fashioned her own inedible crackers and bologna from silicone with added discoloration from tattoo ink (Cobra is also an accomplished tattoo artist), allowing her to make these white proxies as disgusting as possible. Whether a pejorative or a reference to white people’s supposed scent (an accusation once supposedly (and hilariously) lobbed at Hulk Hogan’s daughter Brooke Hogan), Cobra not only refuses whiteness as neutral, but she also digs deep into its abjection. Her depiction of whiteness is, um, not subtle. And that’s not even getting into the monumental necklace of scalped bleach-blonde dreadlocks and white assholes in the back gallery.
As far as I can tell, there are two responses when confronting White Meat as a white viewer, both of which are worth critique and interrogation: immediate offense or gleeful giggles. Or, I guess, look on studiously like another white woman viewer was doing when I visited JTT on a Tuesday afternoon. From her grim affect, I immediately pegged her, rightly or wrongly, as a fellow art writer. My chosen career’s endless attachment to taking itself too seriously aside, I was, of course, the one cackling. And not entirely inappropriately. It’s hard not to laugh when peering at a mayo sandwich from hell. White Meat is undeniably funny at times, purposefully so as two panels of bloodied clown faces, one maniacally smiling and the other frowning, attest. But, King Cobra’s jokes come with a poisonous bite. Like I’ll Bring the Cream Pies, these gags contain bricks and shards of glass. And this time, I don’t think the target is just Anita Bryant.
Speaking of the religious-right orange juice figurehead, it’s not hard to imagine a pearl-clutching culture wars-ravenous news organization like Fox News or The New York Post taking White Meat and running with it, drumming up outrage clicks, furious tweets from the usual suspects, and likely a podcast segment from Ben Shapiro. Loud cries of racism against white people. Gasps about Cobra’s cracker works and their relationship to our first nine presidents (a connection made in the gallery’s press release that I have trouble sussing out within the work). Furrowed brows about diseased anuses from whoever is trying to fit into Tucker Carlson’s shoes in the primetime slot. And on some level, they wouldn’t be totally wrong. Cobra’s exhibition certainly does push white buttons in a startlingly blunt and direct manner that refuses to hide beneath a mountain of conceptualism or critical theory. No, she really does mean white assholes.
But it’s only fair. Historical racist stereotypes of Blackness are understood in the upper echelons of the art world as just a-ok as material for contemporary artists. Post-Betye Saar’s criticism of Kara Walker’s work in the late 1990s, there isn’t even much of a debate over the display of racist imagery outside the uproar over Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play. But in the visual art world proper, the use of racist imagery is entirely normalized. There are copious examples, from artist Nick Cave’s collection of exaggerated blackface thrift store finds to, as just referenced, Kara Walker’s silhouetted antebellum scenes. I don’t necessarily have skin (literally) in declaring whether appropriating this imagery is right or wrong, only that it’s extremely fraught when a Black artist just shows their work on white walls in white institutions for primarily white audiences, let alone when the art depicts anti-Black tropes.
Cobra’s turn towards white flesh in the past couple of years is partially in response to this fraught tension that I mention. In an interview with Cultured, Cobra explains:
“The work that I had been doing, which focused mostly on the exploitation of Black bodies through the medical industry, had always required me to show dismembered parts. And constantly seeing those images was starting to settle a bit weird with me. When I started working with white flesh, it felt a lot easier. I didn’t have a connection to it in the same way that I did when I would make silicone body parts that had brown pigment in them. It allowed me to work in a way that wasn’t so attached to my own appearance, and I was actually able to be a little bit more grotesque with my creative process.”
As Cobra articulates, for much of her career, she precisely rendered Black and Brown flesh as flayed, pierced, manipulated, torn, ripped apart, cut, and pinned, grounded in heavily researched histories of the exploitation, abuse, torture, and subjugation of Black people. Take, for instance, Betsey’s Flag, a monstrous sculptural rendition of the thirteen-star Betsy Ross American flag that even years after viewing remains fresh in my memory. Hung in a clear vitrine, one side of Betsey’s Flag alternates stripes of nauseatingly sewn-together tones of Black and Brown skin. The other side reveals shining wet-looking muscle, tissue, and other assorted pink and red viscera of the sort that would make Jeffrey Dahmer hard. This is our flag—the carnage that built America laid bare. Betsey’s Flag is not titled in reference to Betsy Ross herself, but Betsey, one of the enslaved women patients (if you can call her that) of surgical butcher aka “father of gynecology,” J. Marion Sims who operated on enslaved women without consent or anesthesia.
Sims looms large in Cobra’s art as a prime representative of how Black bodies have been manipulated throughout history as meaty raw materials for the glory, accolades, and unfettered control of the white medical field. She hasn’t let Sims go here either. One of the first works viewers encounter upon entering JTT is Salome’s Revenge, in which Sims’s disembodied head is run through a deli slicer, fatty and speckled like a particularly rancid olive loaf. Some of these flecks dotting Sims’s rosy meat comes courtesy of dirt from Sims’s grave, located at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery (notably also where his cursed statue, previously erected in Central Park until 2018, rests).
For the most part, though, Cobra avoids retreading old medical apartheid territory in White Meat while retaining her mastery of rendering lifelike flesh in silicone. Cobra’s depiction of white flesh is shocking not only because the acne-riddled epidermis is both realistic and disgusting, but because it rips away whiteness’s culturally agreed-upon invisibility and neutrality. By doing so, she forces viewers to consider typically unspoken aspects of how whiteness operates in our society. The gallery’s press release specifically cites Miguel Gutierrez’s phenomenal essay “Does Abstraction Belong to White People?” from BOMB Magazine (a citation which strangely led The New York Times to review Cobra’s exhibition in terms of abstraction even though the work is not particularly abstract. Odd). In “Does Abstraction Belong to White People?” Gutierrez presents an account of numerous occasions in which white performance is able to float beyond sociocultural or historical explanation to exist as form, motion, “a text,” abstraction. He observes, “Who has the right not to explain themselves? The people who don’t have to. The ones whose subjectivities have been naturalized.”
In White Meat, whiteness is exposed to the need for explanation. As seen in the stomach-churning banquet of mayo, crackers, and bologna, as well as the show’s title, White Meat presents whiteness in terms of consumption—whiteness is consumed and consumes. Starting with the former, the other sculpture that greets viewers at the entrance of JTT is THE PALE ONE, a hanging slab of meat surrounded by a searing yellow neon fluorescent frame. Resembling a bloody flank of beef, THE PALE ONE is covered with pearls and Swarovski crystals and draped with a pony-like mane of silvery platinum hair weave. In its interior, past the prickly vagina dentata barbed wire, rests a pink vagina. The prized idyllic white pussy. Whiteness also becomes a purchasable commodity in A White Painting Just For Me, which consists of jumbled strands of dark hair coated in a thick excretion-like smattering of hair relaxers, the bottles of Just For Me perched on the top of the frame.
Beyond these works, the majority of White Meat showcases how whiteness consumes like a ravenous, bottomless pit. Though the mockery of cultural appropriation through white dreadlocks as represented in Rat King and When Does It End is cathartically satisfying, it’s also an easy target. More complicated and meaningful is White Meat’s centerpiece and showstopper: a monumental bisected white-fleshed shark with razorblade teeth, When You Are Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea. Dangling in a similar illuminated neon frame as THE PALE ONE, When You Are Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea is quite obviously a direct nod to Damien Hirst’s own famed formaldehyde tank-dwelling fishie, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Cobra’s sculpture asks: death isn’t a conceptual impossibility for everyone, is it? It certainly wasn’t for the enslaved people dragged through the Middle Passage in ships with sharks closely following in their wake. As Marcus Rediker concluded in “History from below the water line: Sharks and the Atlantic slave trade,” “the shark functioned as an integral part of a system of terror utilized by the slave ship captain.” Though also referencing the American standard (“I should hate you but I guess I love you. You’ve got me in between the devil and the deep blue sea”), the title, When You Are Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea, quite literally poses the choice of the enslaved: the devil or gobbled up by sharks in the Atlantic. Of course, this history of the shark is never considered when looking at Hirst’s preserved fish.
In contrast to Hirst’s work, which I’ve always found quite boring, When You Are Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea is as horrifying as it is beautiful. On one side, a shark’s typical grey body is replaced by a ruddy complexion with infected clumps of pearls near a frame of wire mesh. On the opposite side, the shark’s innards are dissected like a science project: a pearlescent skeleton, glossy viscera, and mostly a digestive track that looks to be full of shit. Peering even closer into the shark, a discolored Black foot juts from its stomach, barely visible. Yikes! This unnerving and uncanny jump scare reveals the human toll of whiteness’s consumption at its pinnacle of horror.
While White Meat overall is a masterclass in how abjection can hold a mirror up to whiteness, the show wasn’t without its missteps. Mainly, the trio of White Assholes, Hairy White Asshole with the Plague, and Two White Assholes with the Plague, which barely needs a description: three butts tied to a mirror with steel cables, some with hair, others riddled with moldy disease rendered with tattoo ink. While I know Cobra was trying to point to white colonizers as sources of disease such as smallpox, I immediately thought of some of the more repellant homophobic reactions to the AIDS pandemic, in particular William F. Buckley’s suggestion in The New York Times that gay men with AIDS get tattoos on their asses as a warning sign for infection. I assume I won’t be the only one who makes that unfortunate connection.
Yet it didn’t stop me from taking a selfie, stupidly smirking, in the mirror alongside the butt. Two white assholes. I mention this to bring up a point about White Meat that I’ve been struggling with ever since: some white people— typically liberal, urban-dwelling, white art types—will be just tickled and thrilled by this insulting, repugnant, and garish representation. White people want to feel bad (just think of all the white guilt splattered all over social media in 2020 and beyond that wasn’t for anyone else but themselves). I don’t make this observation on my own. After visiting White Meat, I’ve been thinking about the show in relation to the late, great comic Patrice O’Neal’s radio interview (the entirety of which is worth a watch below) about studying white people’s love of Radiohead’s song “Creep,” which he describes as “mesmerizing to white people.” “Something about this song,” he says, “it digs deep into the loserdom that white people have. This innate thing where they want to feel bad. That’s why they voted for Barack!” He, then, quotes an imagined white listener: “I’m a creep…I didn’t own slaves, but I’m a WEIRDO!”
I don’t particularly know what to do with this weirdo creep enjoyment. It’s hard to call out someone who is going to be filled with glee about it. I see it as similar to museums’ overt and undying adoration and appetite for institutional critique—somehow that critique just bounces right off. Or Logan Roy’s intimidating demand that his executives roast him in the first episode, “The Munsters,” of this season of Succession. Cobra’s White Meat is a refreshingly compelling confrontational alternative to the failures and limitations of visibility and respectability politics. While this has no bearing on the success of Cobra’s exhibition in and of itself, the inconvenient truth is that power loves a good roasting, especially when there isn’t any real risk of that power being irredeemably and permanently lost.