New York

Karen Finley

The Pyramid Club

Karen Finley’s monologues represent obscenity in its purest form—an attempt to explore feelings for which there are perhaps no words, and certainly no polite ones. Whatever the identity she assumes onstage—as gender, persona, and narrative slip and slide—she’s talking transgression.

At a late-night show she’d ironically labeled her “Greatest Hits,” Finley performed her most (in)famous acts of the last several years. Each piece involved the creation of a distinct persona—in I’m an Ass Man, 1985, she becomes a man, a rapist, disgusted that his victim is having her period; in The Neighbor’s Cock, 1985, she’s the sexually abused girl who’s decided to “tell.” In The Constant State of Desire, 1986, she’s (among other things) a sort of terrorist who coats stockbrokers’ balls with shit and sells them as candy. Sometimes she’ll punctuate a piece by smearing food on herself—kidney beans, ice cream bars, and eggs, respectively, for the three pieces above. These visual aids hint at the violence she’s describing, and signal that all boundaries have collapsed here, including inside/outside. Finley mirrors both the victim and the victimizer in all of us.

When the Kipper Kids (whom she considers an influence) smeared food on themselves, it was infantile and funny, and Finley is often quite funny. But a filthy woman signifies something different than a Kipper Kid. Speaking in images of shit and puke and blood, she’s a gaping, leaking human body, an uncontrollable and engulfing female energy.

Before Finley gets to this primal stuff in performance, however, she always shows the audience the real Karen Finley—the picture of vulnerability. The point, again, is to hold nothing back. She will customarily and relentlessly expose her own struggle to perform—telling us at the Pyramid Club, for example, that she was afraid, she was having her period, she’d forgotten a costume, etc. The unrehearsed commentary framing each monologue took on more and more weight, till it completely overwhelmed what she described as her Greatest Hit of all—a monologue about sexual abuse and abandoned old people that she “illustrates” by putting canned yams up her ass (Yams Up My Granny’s Ass, 1985).

Two years ago I wrote a story for the New York weekly The Village Voice praising Finley’s work. Pete Hamill’s ham-handed denunciation in the following issue ridiculed her performances as being all about yams, a misrepresentation that still dogs her. (He’s never seen her perform.) Finley’s approach to “doing the yams” at the Pyramid Club was to enlarge and exorcise. Having established a remarkable intimacy with the packed house, she encouraged our voyeurism, squatting on a table to give us a better view, while presenting the act very clinically—in fact, directing our responses. (“Now you’re supposed to laugh. Then I say I’ve got a master’s degree in fine arts. You’re supposed to go ‘aaaah.’ Then I smear it. . . . ”) It was female degradation, hilariously deconstructed.

The paradox Finley faces—given that her work is so much about desire and consumption—is that she must now keep from being consumed herself by sensational publicity and audience expectation. Apart from the yams number, though, her monologues had lost none of their disturbing power, which indicates that the unspeakable won’t become schtick anytime soon.

—C. Carr