If you’re new to the performance art world, or you slept through the 1990s, or you’re too young to have been there as it happened, then you probably didn’t flip out when Wordspace announced Karen Finley would be performing not as Karen Finley but as Jackie O on April 1 at The Kessler Theater. But there are plenty of reasons why you should care.
Beginning in the 1980s and stretching to today, Karen Finley has carved out a space that is uniquely hers in the American cultural landscape. Predominantly working at the intersection of art and theater, in an area we call performance art, Finley has recorded obscene rants over disco beats; writhed on theater floors naked and covered in chocolate; and stuffed yams up her ass (kind of). She’s worked with the Kipper Kids, David Wojnarowicz and, oddly enough, Sinéad O’Connor. She’s a playwright, a poet, a recording artist, a performance artist, an actress, a visual artist, and maybe more, epitomizing, throughout her career, the late 20th century artist’s penchant for experimentation and refusal to be confined to any single medium.
If you don’t know her for her work (which is a shame) you may know Finley as a member of the NEA Four, a group of artists whose funding was cut by NEA president John Frohnmayer and Senator Jesse Helms for “indecency,” an incident which almost singlehandedly prompted the NEA’s elimination of funding for individual artists. Her decision to pose nude in Playboy soon thereafter was defended by Finley as a statement of protest, although the motivation raised eyebrows amongst feminist circles who found the claim rather suspect.
But it’s kind of hard to suspect Finley’s motivations when almost all of her work has raised eyebrows. She was part of a generation of artists in the 1980s who responded to the changing world – most specifically the AIDS crisis – with work that redefined provocative, commandeering shock in obscene and very often confusing ways.
Baby Boomers or Gen Xers who were part of the scene in the 1980s may have caught Finley’s performance at Dallas’ legendary Theatre Gallery in 1986, a two-night stand in which Finley performed "Yams up my Granny’s Ass," a rather perfect example of Finley’s artistic practice as exorcism. In the piece, as in much of her work, Finley acts the part of the abuser or the oppressor in order to shock her audience out of their normal state of complacency concerning abuse, domestic violence, the objectification and subjugation of women, and mindless consumption. Does it seem like too much? Then it’s working.
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Post 9/11, Finley’s work became quieter (although when speaking of Finley, quietness is a relative term). She claimed she could no longer “perform as Karen Finley.” So she started channeling the voices of others, although always in service to the themes of womanhood, violence and trauma. "The Jackie Look," which Finley first performed in New York City in 2010 and will reprise for Dallas audiences April 1, uses the outsize personality of Jackie Onassis Kennedy as a foil for a commentary on the “casualization” of violence.
Since the initial performance of the Jackie Look, Finley has performed the piece a number of times, consistently updating it with new responses to the seemingly endless parade of human tragedies we’re exposed to in the 21st century, so the performance next week in Dallas will be at least slightly different than it has been previously.
Jackie, for Finley, is the ideal evocation of society’s tendency to overlay women with the desires and characteristics we want to see in them. We the consumer made Jackie (and every woman in Finley’s reading) what we expect a woman to be and by using such a recognizable figure as a persona or jumping off point, Finley has found if not the perfect, then at least a close approximation of a historical figure upon which she can critique the processing of trauma in modern times: In American culture, Jackie O is the ideal victim.
Finely has been called many things over her career, some of which she staunchly owns (I doubt Finley would take offense to her early performance work’s characterization as existing “on the brink of rationality”) but all of her detractors serve to justify her provocations: The responses Finley provokes simply prove the necessity of her work. It makes you angry? Good. Rage is the natural response to a society in which violence against women is normalized.