New York

Karen Finley

Fotouhi Cramer Gallery / P.S. 122

Karen Finley, force of nature. If you saw her in an ’80s performance club you might have called her that, so powerful was she—but then you’d quickly have felt ridiculous, because it was her particular brilliance to see through any behavioral straitjacket imagined for her, or for women generally, and to dynamite it on the spot. Whether scripted or ad-libbed, spoken in English or in tongues, her monologues were blistering, and because they were part rant (anger is often a motor for Finley, although another is compassion), part nudity, and part sticky mess, her enemies could tar her crazy. They missed, or refused, her ideas, as if thought were incompatible with such deeply felt expulsions—yet those performances had the quality of bringing what might have seemed sociological or theoretical (the way objectification and consumption work on women’s bodies, say) into fraught but clear vision.

Finley also creates gallery exhibitions and installations, but for this viewer they only occasionally show her at her best. Even so, her show this summer had a certain fierce restlessness that got under your skin, and it gained power retrospectively, when Finley performed The American Chestnut in the fall. Like a string of twentieth-century-artists before her, Finley apparently distrusts the power of illusion: the mechanics of her visual effects are always self-evident. This strategy could be confining, but The American Chestnut, a series of loosely linked monologues, was staged with a steady ingenuity that put the lie to those who deny her work’s artfulness. None of its segments was handled the same way; each had its own visual or spatial invention, and these inventions had a purposeful simplicity—a change of clothes, perhaps (completed onstage rather than off), or a particular rhythm of walking while speaking. This practice of making do with little may touch audiences who think that Finley deserves better than the indifferent-to-brutal treatment she has sometimes gotten in the US, but it is certainly a thought-through aesthetic. When Finley trained a video camera on an arrangement of crude doll-scale interiors and props, then projected the enlarged image on the back wall as a fake stage set (the illusion of an illusion), the artifice—so transparent, so homemade—said smart and funny things about how art gets done.

I also find a feminist impulse here—an avoidance of the mystification of mastery. And much of both the gallery show and The American Chestnut addressed the lives of women, from Hillary Clinton (a hilarious bit) to the working mother that Finley herself is. Resenting gettiing ogled on the street, she imagines a “Victor’s Secret” for clothes that spotlight men’s scrotums—“little caps knitted in Belgium by nuns!” Reading aloud to her daughter, she finds dysfunctional sexuality in Winnie the Pooh and crew, and both writes and draws on the topic. The monologue is witty, but the drawings, shown in the gallery, are static and have a disproportionate undercurrent of indignation, as if Finley felt she had uncovered some deep ugliness in the family romance. In Nursing, 1995, a video shown at both venues, Finley brusquely kneads her breasts to squirt milk onto a black-velvet rectangle, producing a “painting”—a woman’s remaking, with her body as medium, of the AbEx drip technique. The velvet hung in the gallery, a compact interrogation of creativity and male-centered art history. The video itself, however, worked best as an interlude in The American Chestnut, where it was informed by Finley’s writing and voice.

Actually Finley has a number of voices, ranging from coy playfulness to preacherly power, from a grieving tremble to a rage so over the top as to be both frightening and, once again, funny. The American Chestnut happily draws on a full variety of these possibilities. Clearly, Finley’s strengths as a performer and writer are integral to her success as a artist, but some of the pieces in the gallery show pack their own punch. In Moral History, 1994–97, a small library of art books and journals lies open on a table; Finley’s comments about them are written in grease pencil on a sheet of glass clamped over these artifacts. On Carl Andre she writes: “The O. J. of the art world.” On an old copy of Artforum discussing Yves Klein and the women who rolled in blue paint at his request: “Yves Klein got away with it. I didn’t.” On one of Willem de Kooning’s “Women” paintings: “I’m sick of being interpreted.” Irritable, gossipy, accusatory, acute, the piece takes on art history and scores solidly.

David Frankel is a contributing editor of Artforum.