New York

Karen Finley

A performance artist who honed her act on the club circuit, Karen Finley is the latest late-night skit-maker to move to prime-time alternative performance spaces. Her performance trademark has been ranting monologues, in form not unlike John Giomo’s breath-defined chanting poetry, and in content similar to the “obscene,” taboo-attacking jeremiads of singer-poet Lydia Lunch and writer Kathy Acker. In front of jam-packed, drunkenly rowdy, on-the-prowl audiences, Finley’s run-on tirades about rape, incest, suicide, and, especially, oral and anal sex, combined with her gross physical gestures (pouring chocolate syrup on her breasts, cramming yams into her pants), have worked up an explosive energy. And an idea as unsettling as Finley’s words and acts crept in under cover of the frantic excess; a female id unfettered, unashamed, and on the loose. The resulting interplay between performer and audience, the attraction/repulsion vibes, and Finley’s careening performance persona generated minidramas of exhilarating near-chaos.

Very little of that excitement survived her switch to the Kitchen. Performing The Constant State of Desire in December 1986, Finley addressed the problems of a more formal space, an early-evening time slot, and a full-length show with a curiously diffident strategy—she simply wrapped an ingenuous “Gosh! It's-me-performing-at-the-Kitchen” persona around her possessed-woman set pieces. Desire was a passionless exercise, one that totally undercut the primal horror/humor of the talking-in-tongues, foul-mouthed Finley by exhibiting the “real Finley” as a coy, defensive apologist.

From the start of the show, when she aborted her entrance to greet friends seated in the front row, began all over again, and then bared her breasts in a perfunctory, almost obligatory way, it was clear that Finley had seriously underestimated—or, even more misguidedly, just deliberately ignored—the demands of a longer, more complex performance. She commented on the decor (which looked like a set of Ukrainian kitsch found objects from the Lower East Side), her problems in assembling the show, and her own performance, in a cloying manner that made me think of Sally Field at the Oscars, revealing more than anything else that she desperately wanted to be liked. Even her food gross-outs seemed like wan versions of former gestures: hacking up cigars, spitting water on the floor, chopping up bread—these were all low on the gag scale and ended up simply pointless.

Her tranced-out moments of ranting id were, as usual, impressive diatribes in themselves, but embedded here in the artless, aimless context of her Finley-at-home persona, the monologues seemed like pretentious shticks. How did these wild-woman eruptions relate to the “like-me?” hostess Finley? What can a provocateur do besides arouse and/or offend the audience? What’s left when the “naughty” vocabulary doesn’t carry a charge any more? These were all vital questions that The Constant State of Desire raised but didn’t even begin to answer.

John Howell