Los Angeles

Karen Finley


Karen Finley’s exhibition “St. Kilda” presented an assortment of works that dealt with bereavement and the regressive, helpless condition it can reduce us to. In Written in Sand, 1992–94, a memorial installation first shown at HallWalls in Buffalo, ten tons of damp sand were deposited in a dim, gilded room, and the sand hillocks that formed were topped with flickering white votive candles. A handwritten text on the wall invited you to “write the names of those you have loved and lost” in the sand and then to smooth them away.

The main gallery contained nine framed pieces that resembled giant get-well cards. Featuring expressionistic images of floral arrangements, some with wilted or toppled blossoms, these works sported short, handpainted texts. (The childlike handwriting used throughout the show looked by turns careful, furious, pathetic, and scared.) With phrases such as “I shot myself because I love you if I loved myself I’d be shooting you,” Finley expressed her interest in discussing the horrors of family dysfunction.

Isolated in a tiny, atticlike room, The Vacant Chair, 1994, was perhaps the show’s most evocative piece. Woven of flowers and branches, at once a live and moribund , surrounded by funereal smells of drying foliage and shriveling petals, this chair was a haunting sight. The seat back fanned out in spindly, twisting branch tips that evoked skeleton fingers or some tree sprite’s hair standing on end.

Another room contained three mixed-media work based on dollhouses, nine small, quirky ink drawings, and three murallike tablecloth pieces. The texts on the dollhouses and tableclothes ranged from outcries (“please no, wake up, wake up”) to acknowledgments of family pathology (“Heart disease runs in some families, not in mine. Depression, mania and too brief lives”) to poetic musings (“Time and emotions stood still in their intensity like a floodgate . . . ”). One tablecloth piece, Positive Attitude, 1994, was a simplistic drawing of a haloed man, woman, and child naked and covered with scarlet spot. The text focused on the desire to view the red lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma as somehow lovely: “I tell myself I am visited by raspberries, strawberries, roses . . . I’m a speckled wild cat with a coat of rare beauty.” This piece was at once bold, noble, and embarrassing, and left one with conflicting feelings. The attempt to dispel stigma, to provide comfort, and to remind us of the holiness of suffering radiated so strongly from Positive Attitude that while it seemed unfair to view it as a heavy-handed stab at prettifying a terrifying illness, it was difficult not to. That Finley’s show presents a grief-response which looks and feels childlike and regressive has interesting and moving aspects as well as troublesome ones.

Amy Gerstler