New York

Ravi Jackson, Kim, 2022, plywood, rubber door stopper, hinges, ink-jet prints, acrylic paint, 48 1⁄8 × 61".

Ravi Jackson, Kim, 2022, plywood, rubber door stopper, hinges, ink-jet prints, acrylic paint, 48 1⁄8 × 61".

Ravi Jackson

There she was, either crouched seductively on a polar bear–skin rug or posing in a red bikini with a Beretta at her crotch, simultaneously taunting us and turning us on: Lil’ Kim, the Queen Bitch and multiplatinum rapper, who was the surprise star of “Hardcore,” Ravi Jackson’s first solo exhibition in New York. The show was named after Lil’ Kim’s 1996 debut album and was filled with smeary, low-res pictures of her, which Jackson printed from the internet and pasted to sculptures bearing hinged wooden panels, as though she were the deflowered Madonna on an altarpiece. If many gay men worship Lil’ Kim, it’s likely because she’s good at “making [straight] male rappers quiver with fear,” as Rolling Stone remarked in 2004. In Jackson’s show, she was rightfully presented as an empowered, self-made, sex-positive woman, and a counterpoint to hetero masculinity in crisis.

The exhibition opened with My Queen, 2020, a wooden panel painted with pink labial slits on a muddy-brown ground. At its center was a printout of lyrics from Lil’ Kim’s 1996 single “Queen Bitch”—in which she boasts about making lavish designer purchases—alongside an ad for discount shoes from Nordstrom Rack. Hovering over them was a rubber office doorstop, which resembled an impenetrable orifice. Throughout the show, Jackson used domestic hardware to invoke male impotence or female prohibition: for instance, phallic metal coils that buckled with the slightest pressure, or door handles that refused to turn.

The hinged elements of Jackson’s sculptures had the suggestive ability to open and close like parts of a human body. On several of these works, Jackson pasted a famous promotional image from Lil’ Kim’s album, but cropped from the picture were her spread legs. As her lyrics repeatedly attest, sex happens—or doesn’t—on her own terms. On Queen Kim, 2022, the same photograph, altered to reveal just her face, appeared at the bottom of two separate collages, fashioned as twin door hangers—the kind one uses to demand privacy during a hotel tryst—which dangled from a pair of doorknobs that resembled oversize nipples. Accompanying Lil’ Kim’s visage were images of raw meat, a Tony Smith sculpture, African kente cloths, and the second-century Roman marble Sleeping Hermaphroditus: fetishes of race, sexuality, and aesthetics that burnish the singer’s own self-objectification.

That said, Jackson’s humor has an immediacy that resists overly literal interpretation. I can’t say why I found his insertion of Rihanna’s flawlessly made-up mug over a man’s roided-up abdominals so funny (Rihanna Body, 2022), but it’s almost certain the pop star could get any dude to do her sexual bidding. A number of freestanding and fully abstract wax-candle sculptures seemed to extend this corporeal comedy, their puckered, punched-out “orifices” demanding that the viewer crouch down to hungrily peer through them. Small, turd-shaped incense sticks sat conspicuously on the floor or atop mirrored tables, as though left by a prank-loving child. Like the subjects of a diss track, these works literally begged to be burned.

Yet no one got scorched quite as much as the men in Jackson’s show. In Outlaw Peaceful Kurt, 2022, a mustachioed Kurt Russell, dressed as a stereotypical cowboy for his gunslinging role in Tombstone (1993), appeared comically emasculated with clownish daubs of yellow paint highlighting his cheeks. On either side of his deeply grooved face, Lil’ Kim’s alluring eyes dangled from hooks that beckoned like fingers. Below all this was another sampling of lyrics from “Queen Bitch,” in which the rapper threatens to kill anyone who dares mess with her friends; you could sense that, unlike Russell, she wasn’t acting.

A wall-mounted piece, Dick Gregory Needed, 2022, featured a flyer, designed in the style of a “Wanted” poster, for the 1968 presidential campaign of the eponymous Black comedian and civil rights activist.Gregory’s White House run—intended as a protest against the Vietnam War and anti-Black racism—made the Marxist-leaning actor into a target of assassination for the FBI. In front of Gregory’s face, Jackson suspended a phallic wooden bedpost, the symbolic castration possibly symbolizing the way Black men are too often objectified. This “dick joke” reclaims power through satire, just as Gregory’s self-effacing humor fucked with racist stereotypes. Like Lil’ Kim, Gregory played with tired tropes of race and gender in order to subvert them. “I got that bomb ass cock, a good ass shot,” she boasts about her firearm skills in “Queen Bitch.” Watch as they both take aim.