Karen Finley

Cutler Majestic Theatre and Huret & Spector Gallery, Emerson College

In her role as Emerson College’s 2007 School of the Arts Visiting Artist, provocateur Karen Finley produced “Nation Building,” a thoughtful exhibition of drawings, sculpture, and mixed-media works. She also performed two monologues, The Dreams of Laura Bush and The Passion of Terry Schiavo. These may have disappointed an audience expecting variants on Finley’s infamous chocolate-covered nude performances but they revealed a calmer, more globally conscious feminist practitioner, seeking here to address issues around sexuality and power by targeting the dysfunctional Bush family, Dubya’s administration, and the war in Iraq.

Finley describes The Dreams of Laura Bush and The Passion of Terry Schiavo as “bookends of archetypes of powerlessness in our national narrative.” Dreams represented the artist’s attempt to imagine the repressed fantasies of the First Lady: After a highly ironic introductory monologue fetishizing war in general and American soldiers in particular, Finley voiced Laura Bush’s “dream journals” while video projections of sketches illustrating Laura’s sexually fixated id flashed up behind her. In one dream, “Laura” performs oral sex on Tony Blair until he concedes, “I think it’s time to withdraw.” In another, she helps Dick Cheney celebrate “Gasoline Happy Day” by distributing cakes and flowers to local gas stations. Meanwhile, Passion recalled our obsession with the brain-damaged woman who became the unwitting focus of a national right-to-die debate. After creating, onstage, a single black-and-gold calligraphic drawing in homage to the ill-fated Schiavo, Finley made full use of her acting abilities to identify intimately with her subject and present a variety of reactions to the case. Where Dreams was witty if occasionally rambling, Passion was tightly focused and powerfully emotional.

Although best known for her work in performance, Finley is a talented visual artist more than capable of extrapolating her antiwar stance into an object- and image-based gallery installation. “Nation Building” opened with a sequence of black-and-white drawings related to Dreams, attached to a black wall with magnets. Accompanied by scrawling script, many of these ink-on-paper studies appear to have been made rapidly and as if in a trance (as was her 2003–2005 series “Psychic Portraits”). But some more highly worked and extensively referential entries were also included: A portrait of a smirking Laura Bush juxtaposed with a flowered cowboy boot, for example, is more than a little reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s early studies of figures and shoes.

“Considering Condoleezza,” 2006–2007, is a series of mixed-media works investigating the physicality, background, and psyche of the American secretary of state as black woman, victim, and menace. Finley concentrates on Rice’s dark, almond-shaped eyes, her straightened hair, and her militaristic black boots, but also references the racial terrorism that she reportedly witnessed as a child in ’60s Birmingham, Alabama. Finley seems to conjecture that violence begets violence, replacing images of falling bombs with shots of Rice’s eyeballs in a wallpaper mural. Titling the work My Eyes Have Seen the Glory: The Eyes of Condoleezza Rice, 2007, Finley thus also ties Rice’s symbolic significance to a patriotic song and a line from Martin Luther King’s final speech.

A connection between America’s history of public lynching and the media’s saturation coverage of the hanging of Saddam Hussein is made via a room wallpapered in repeated drawings of the execution (several hundred feet of rope, tied into a variety of hangman’s knots, also engulfed both floors of the gallery). As these and other works shown here demonstrate, Finley’s art has evolved into a sophisticated brand of visual-verbal political satire. But far from concentrating entirely on reportage or protest, the former chocolate-dipped diva remains committed to exposing her audience’s collective fantasies.

Francine Koslow Miller