The Karen Finley Makeover

A Persecuted Performance Artist Gets Past Her Suffering

Finley's work has always been about reaction, and her six-page spread in Playboy that July seemed to embody a big fuck-you. But it was hard to blame her for that. She'd spent years defending her work against the right, saying again and again: It's not sex, it's not sex. But they'd eroticized her anyway. So, in Playboy, she gave them the ultimate candy-coated woman—two pages naked, four with chocolate. Originally, Playboy said they'd include an interview with her, a discussion of the First Amendment. When that fell through, however, she says, "I was kind of glad, because I just think why not have it—sex, the body? Do I have to defend it?"

While it seems paradoxical, she found it liberating to turn temporarily into the thing the right-wingers accused her of being. As if to say, "Fine, that's who I am. Now go away." To those who know her work, the differences between the Playboy shots and the Dona Ann McAdams photos documenting We Keep Our Victims Ready are profound. The McAdams pictures resonate with emotion, which is the opposite of pornographic fantasy.

Finley's newest performance, Shut Up and Love Me (coming back to P.S. 122 in the spring), is the first thing she has done in years that does not deal with suffering. The roots of it come from one little section of her last piece, The American Chestnut, in which a girl of 13 realizes for the first time that she's being sexualized by various men as she walks down the street. It's about the problem heterosexual women always seem to face: "trying to find a sensible way of living within a code of being desired."

Finley's new work relates to the problem heterosexual women always seem to face: "trying to find a sensible way of living within a code of being desired."
photo: Robin Holland
Finley's new work relates to the problem heterosexual women always seem to face: "trying to find a sensible way of living within a code of being desired."

As Finley likes to point out, women are defined by their sexuality, then demonized for it. That contradiction is at the core of her art.

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