Echoes and Reverberations: Karen Finley and the Delicate Art of Disgust

In the summer of 1986, the Theatre Gallery was all about confronting the established aesthetic sensibilities of the comfortable arts patron.

Basically, we loved to shock the shit out of people. Our venue existed to raise the bar on outrageousness and freedom of expression.

Example: One of our door persons was the teenage daughter of the Chief of the Dallas Police Department at the time. She was also a talented painter who had briefly dated the member of a high-profile Dallas band. Shortly after the couple broke up, she created a large and shockingly realistic painting of his twisted and sexually-aroused naked torso in the aftermath of a horrible automobile accident. It was like a still frame from a graphic XXX snuff film. But the painting was dope, so we hung that shit in the front window of our gallery space. As far as we can tell, nobody ever told her Dad about it.

That's how we knew our gallery was still under the radar.

The fixation on disgust was fairly evident in our music menu as well. Austin group Dino Lee and the White Trash Revue incorporated the bleeding head of a freshly slaughtered pig on a sharp wooden staff. Other bands like Bad Brains, Scratch Acid, Butthole Surfers, Flaming Lips and Loco Gringos lit stuff on fire and trudged knee-deep in our blood, sweat and tears.

Karen Finley was a controversial and provocative performance artist from New York City. I read about her in a cover story in the Village Voice while on a trip with Russell Hobbs to New Music Seminar that summer.

There was some rather heated public debate there as to whether what she was doing was really art or not. Was it important or revelatory? Could she pull it off outside her comfort zone of the lower East Side? And, riskier, how would it go over in the city that had, only two years prior, hosted the Republican National Convention?

Within the context of the North Texas subversive arts community, Dallas was usually standing in the shadows of Fort Worth, where you could regularly see William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg or Timothy Leary reading their material at Caravan of Dreams.

I was also really into Laurie Anderson's work at the time: Big Science had been released in 1982 and had initiated the process of redefining the parameters of spoken performance art. (By 1986, she had released three albums and a concert film called Home of the Brave.)

But while Anderson used elaborate electronic props like video monitors, electronic violins and rear screen projections, Karen Finley's presentation at Theatre Gallery was almost the exact polar opposite--her stage show included nothing but a microphone, a designer dress, and a bag of groceries.

I put together a weekend where Finley headlined two shows at TG; the Friday show featured an opening act from San Francisco called My Sin (real name: Stan Fairbanks), the Saturday show also included a spoken word performance by Henry Rollins.

That weekend turned out to be a media feeding frenzy for Theatre Gallery. Every newspaper and magazine in town had a correspondent on the scene. This week, a number of writers who hold longstanding connections to the Dallas arts community reflect upon that particular weekend, and how each of us happened to critique or process the experience at the time.

Manny Mendoza (former Dallas Morning News arts critic): "Even in hip New York, [her act] was controversial and hotly debated. I remember there was a storm in the pages of the Village Voice. But it wasn't so much that the critics were shocked. They were wondering whether she was a fraud or really had something to say. If you recall, she had been abused as a child, and her point was to work that out in this really outrageous way in public. What struck me was the almost religious style of her shtick. Her words were delivered as an incantation, the chanting building up throughout the performance until it exploded. I think the art types respected her, and I believe she was sincere. I hope she also realized that what she was doing was humorous, even if that wasn't her central purpose. I can't imagine how that played in Dallas."

Mark Ridlen (Lithium X-Mas/DJ Mr. Rid): "Art should instill a strong statement, right? In '84 and at the urging of local painters Jeff Robinson and Matt Miller, I visited New York's lower East Side for a taste of new things to come. Another former Dallas pal and drag performer, Tangella, invited me to the notorious Pyramid Club. There, a punk band like Flipper could share a stage with Warhol poet Taylor Mead and no one would bat an eye. A young Karen Finley was working the door and stamping hands. Shocking the Reaganistic monkeys was easy and our newly opened Theatre Gallery was a close parallel to that portal of makeshift Dada vaudeville."

Walt Brown (Publisher - Document Magazine): "NYC was going through the 'Downtown Is Dead' phase at the time, while Big D was still pluggin' away; I really liked visiting Theatre Gallery because of its raw, East Village NYC atmosphere. That weekend, I was visiting from NYC and wanted to do something besides go to Starck Club. I managed to talk my friends into going to the other side of downtown to see Karen Finley; they had already heard of her performance art which involved canned food and bodily orifices. It was basically the same outlandish/beautiful/ugly act she created for her installment in the elevator of the 1986 Whitney Biennial. It was an added bonus to see Henry Rollins. He had just split from Black Flag and we were hoping to hear his new spoken word stuff. The atmosphere at Theatre Gallery was electric that night and was reminiscent of the East Village space called The Kitchen. I've never experienced anything like that in Dallas since and suspect I never will."

John Branch (Vanity Fair/former Dallas Observer arts critic): "To be honest, I haven't thought about that event in some time and, maybe because my interests have shifted (or else because my mind has grown dull), I'm not sure how to estimate its import. Very few people actually attended the Sex Pistols performance in Dallas, but after the fact, the number seemed to grow; the underground culturati recognized that something important had blown through town, and there was little risk in claiming to have seen it since hardly anyone did. It may be that Karen Finley's appearance has acquired something of the same, semi-mythic dimensions; if so, fine (Dallas doesn't have that many underground art events to be proud of, and it might as well play up the ones it does have), but I'm pretty sure there were only a few dozen people in attendance the night I was there."

Thor Johnson (Artist/Theatre Gallery employee): "My Sin was really my favorite part of the whole thing because he was really so far ahead of his time. I watched Stan's performance from up in the balcony/bar. For Karen's show, I went down to the floor towards the front. I was totally blown away by the combination of disgusting sexiness and the war that seemed to go on between the meaning of her words (anti-patriarchy /anti-abuse etc) and her action metaphors (shoving canned yam/peaches up in the gut, etc.). Of course, I was tripping, so that might have had something to do with the lasting impression. Never a big canned peach or yam fan after that. She was really nice and kind of demure in person, though."

Michael Harris (Dallas cab driver): "I was somewhat aware of NY performance art, so I had already heard of her. I knew several other people that were going, so all of us went as a group. I actually talked to Karen at the bar that evening. She was a very nice lady. I was impressed because she had a lot of passion about what she did. I didn't read a lot of art magazines at the time; I heard about her via word-of-mouth. She was doing simple but sensational thing. Her signature piece was called 'Yams Up My Granny's Ass', or something like that. It all seemed like a work-in-progress, like she was working out a lot of issues onstage or whatever. Anyway, like everybody else, I was mainly there to see her shove yams up her ass."

Sarah Foote (audience member): "I saw Karen Finley perform two nights in a row at Theatre Gallery in 1986. TG was my destination every night, so I didn't think much about who was playing. If I was out, I was seeing whomever it was that night at TG. When I arrived the first night, I heard that Karen was 'a bit unusual'. Well, seeing as how I was in high school at Plano West, that ended up being quite the understatement! At first I was thinking, 'Cool, this gal is up there and going to give us some super feminist spoken word to inspire us to march on Washington'. And then she brought out the yams... I was pretty shocked. My friend insisted we go back the second night because she was a huge My Sin fan. I liked Karen better then because I was more able to listen to her entertaining prose after that initial shock had begun to wear off."

Paul Quigg: "That was actually one of the first times that Henry Rollins came through without a punk band backing him up. I was initially kinda irritated by him. My Sin was really interesting, though. It was nice to see one guy up there by himself doing everything. This was a couple of years before underground punk artists were using samplers and sequencers. He was onto something."

Oddly enough, Rollins' macho/oblivious material provided an odd counterpoint to Finley's fem/victim manifesto. Henry chose to sit cross-legged on the floor in the middle of the audience. He was still kinda new to this spoken word thing back then. After being rudely interrupted by a couple of kids conversing obliviously across the room, Rollins told them to go outside or he wouldn't finish his reading. During the Friday night performance, I got the impression that Karen initially startled the audience with the sheer intensity of this "voice of possession" she had inhabited. However, in the middle of her most disturbing piece, she abruptly dropped out of character and said, "OK, this is where I'm going to stuck the yams up my ass. Everybody come on up front. This is what you paid for, right?" It was more of a statement about her take on the audience's collective shallow expectations.

By the time Finley came on that second night, she had everybody's undivided attention and never sacrificed the willing suspension of disbelief.

Russell Hobbs (Theatre Gallery owner): "That kind of confrontational performance art scene was really big in NYC then, but Dallas was still kind of new to that sort of thing. She was a really cool, pretty attractive woman, and her performance art was intense and effective. She went into this whole victim tirade that was sort of based on a rape/molestation theme, and it was really pretty shocking. I think it caught most of the people in the audience off guard. They might have been expecting some sort of comedy, or possibly something more uplifting. The whole controversy around her act was built around shock value; her art was certainly real and valid, but in a way it was also her demise. Artistically, she kind of painted herself into a corner."

Josh Alan Friedman (Writer/musician): "I happened to see Karen Finley's show at Theatre Gallery on a trip to Dallas, the year before moving here. She was getting good press at the moment, a lot of ballyhoo about 'shoving yams up her ass' onstage. Well, my wife and I were due for an evening out. This woman shoving yams up her ass, in the name of art, sounded like a peppy evening of entertainment. It was either that or the Ice Capades. To be blunt, she didn't seem particularly talented; there was nothing memorable or noteworthy about her 'performance.' We awaited the moment of truth, when she brought out the yams. The Grand Finale. But they appeared to be canned yams, the soft, syrupy kind. She merely splattered and smeared them across her rear end. 'Fraud!' I muttered, feeling cheated out of the admission."

John Branch: "The most tangible takeaway I got from the evening was a physical artifact: The performer removed her underwear at one point and tossed them into the audience, and I caught them. Karen Finley's underwear became one of my treasures, and a kind of touchstone as well. Just as Dallas film fans might once have counted you among the knowing if you were aware of Bottle Rocket, I was able to assign gold stars or black marks to the cultural scorecard of visitors to my apartment depending on what they understood about the origin of that underwear."

Mark Ridlen: "At 13, my first concert experience was Alice Cooper. Ever since then I expect at least a nod of 'showmanship' from any public performer. Karen Finley grew up the same way, and in '86 did not fail to kick out the yams for the drooling throngs. I witnessed her act once again at the McKinney Ave. Contemporary a few years ago, when she climaxed her show by rolling around naked on a sheet of honey. She invited the mixed audience to partake, but everyone stayed glued to their seats content to gawk and smirk."

For me personally, there was a single moment at Theatre Gallery that I'll never forget; about ten minutes into her first performance, I realized that this really wasn't going to be entertaining on any level. And it wasn't meant to be.

Karen Finley was taking this room full of people to a dark and disturbing place where no one really had expected to go. After My Sin's absolutely exhilarating opening set, Finley flipped the script and made us all either quite bewildered or very uncomfortable.

Suffice to say that I lost my appetite on the spot. Many in the audience assumed that there was to be a certain comedic subtext to her material. This clearly wasn't the case at all.

Nothing against Karen personally, because I found her to quite interesting and intellectually engaging offstage, but I was actually glad when her performances were finally over. I don't know. Maybe something about it made me hate the fact that I am a man.

In a review of the performance dated September 15, 1986, the late Dallas Morning News arts critic Russell Smith summarized Karen Finley's appearance at Theatre Gallery as such: "The themes of the evening included rape, flatulence, menstruation, the Reagan regime, yuppies vs. artists, and just about every variety of sexual and emotional violence imaginable. Despite the sexual obsession, there was nothing titillating about Finley's performance. If anything, it was anti-sex, reflecting the same sense of emotional degradation depicted in the movie Last Tango In Paris. The show was also occasionally repulsive, occasionally interesting, occasionally boring. Not really profound, but in its way, profoundly depressing."

Thankfully, Rollins and My Sin were on hand to protect the collective penis. (Jesus Christ, was her act ever a kick in the nuts!) They had never met prior to that night, but years later, Rollins and Fairbanks eventually crossed paths once again; Stan would move from Frisco down to Los Angeles and take a regular day job working for Henry's book publishing company. Rollins then started a new solo rock band, and Finley eventually returned to Dallas for subsequent appearances at Starck Club and The MAC.

Still, like anything ambiguous or awkward, Karen's material has to be examined within the context of its presentation. If she had been standing, say, on the front sidewalk instead of on our stage, she would almost certainly landed in either jail or in one of our many fine psychiatric facilities. The jet black walls of Theatre Gallery provided safe haven to exploit her neuroses.

On the other hand, when one stands on a stage, there is an implicit understanding that you are there to entertain an audience. Was this woman, at times apparently channeling the twisted persona of a rapist or child molester, leveraging psychosis as a night-out-on-the-town diversion? And years later, how did she come to exploit this same disturbing material and end up making dance records, performing in trendy nightclubs and eventually posing naked for Playboy magazine?

I doubt that even she knows for sure.

In retrospect, what have any of us ever really "accomplished" as creative people? Have we ever done anything even remotely tangible or important? Sure, some of us have written songs or stories, created paintings or photographs, expressed ourselves in every way imaginable. But did our music or art ever inspire love, rehabilitate abuse or turn war into peace? Some of us were just brave (or stupid) enough to stand on a stage and make a complete ass of ourselves for god knows whatever reason. Others stood in the shadows of the audience and laughed or cried or collided with one another. Still others were really only at Theatre Gallery that weekend to get laid or drunk or blown out the frame on whatever dope kept hope alive back in those days.

All of us do whatever it is we do for a reason, usually either driven by ego, catharsis or sheer basic survival instincts. It is this immediate comfort or privilege we enjoy (or endure) which ultimately frames our individual perspective and experience.

Karen Finley is some kind of artist, for sure. But were you really there that weekend to buy into whatever it was she was selling? And was it enough to make you reconsider who you are as a human being?

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Jeff Liles