= DISCLAIMER: PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS IS NOT KAREN FINLEY'S OFFICIAL
This page is part of a comprehensive personal website. I have been following Karen's work for a number of years and this chronicles my experiences with her works and performances over the years. I have been sent many messages asking if I could get in touch with Karen and ask her various questions from fans, not to mention from those who are not very fond of her work or political views. Unfortunately, I have no contact with her (even though I would love to actually speak with her one day!) At one time it seemed like she was preparing an official website, but now it looks like that hasn't happened. So for now, feel free to check out my page devoted to a woman who is more than just a little controversial! I will try to answer any questions, but I really do not have any contact with Karen, nor does she endorse this webpage.
Karen Finley, performance artist and domestic goddess.
Images of Karen and her work. Click on the desired picture for a full view and explanation.
"Her furious cry from the heart was so intense that it reduced the audience to a stunned silence." -- Praise for Karen Finley's The American Chestnut, a performance piece that debuted in Los Angeles
Back in 1987, my last year at Rutgers University, I was driving home from school with the radio tuned to WRSU-FM, the student-run station. A song the dj later identified as "The Yam Jam" by someone name Karen Finley came on and, as it progressed, my jaw went into a continuous free fall. Over an infectious dance beat, this woman, in a rap-like manner, let loose an unbroken stream of obscenities that dealt with a variety of topics, from inserting yams into her granny's orifices to urinating on bums in the subway. After getting over my shock at the station for actually playing this song in the first place, I just figured that this was nothing more than a blatant attempt at shock value.
Because I've always had an inherent interest in the shocking, I did a little more research at the radio station (my friend Jim was a dj at WRSU throughout our college years, so I spent a lot of time with him during his shows). After finding out she was once the opening act for the Dead Kennedys, I listened to more of Karen Finley's work as the radio station received copies of her records. Of course, they contained her trademark foul-mouthed tirades, but I began to realize that these songs actually addressed a variety of issues, ranging from the degradation of women to people's desire to control others. Plus these songs provided Jim and I with great quotes with which to pepper our own everyday conversation. Eventually I discovered that not only did Karen generate these records, but was also involved in many other artistic mediums, such as theater, staged monologues, installations and writing.
Jim and I regularly attended performances by Karen in the New York/New Jersey area, went to installations of her artwork and visual pieces, bought her books and collected her cd's. Basically, if she had a hand in something on stage, in an art gallery or in print, we were there. We were pleasantly surprised at her appearance in the film Philadelphia, where she had a brief role as Tom Hanks' doctor.
Karen may be most famous, however, for being described as "the chocolate-smeared woman" by conservative asshole columnists Evans and Novak and for her notoriety as a member of the "NEA Four," the group of performance artists who received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and whose work subsequently provoked hysterical cries of obscenity and a drive to abolish funding for the agency. She and the three other artists just recently won a suit against the federal government for denying them grants in 1990 for their supposedly "indecent" work. Unfortunately, this victory proved to be short-lived. On June 26, 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in favor of a 1990 law requiring the NEA to consider standards of 'decency' when giving out grants and ruled in favor of keeping the law in place, which is a major defeat for those advocating freedom of artistic expression.
I know Karen Finley as a very talented individual who may go for shock value, but does so for the purpose of getting people to listen to what she feels are urgent issues largely ignored by most of society. As someone who has lost many friends and acquaintances to AIDS, a topic almost always a part of Karen's works, I cannot help feeling a particularly intense bond with her substantial anger on this issue. I have been in the audience during some of her pieces where one minute I was roaring with laughter at her ironic take on silly day-to-day issues, and then the next feeling emotionally drained as Karen screamed and cried in frustration in honor of her countless friends who died of AIDS. Granted, her style and some of her topics are not for everyone but for the last 17 years she has made me think, rethink my own attitudes on some issues, laugh and (at the risk of sounding like a tired cliché) cry. It took me over a year before I could even think about deleting my friend Bruce's name from my address book after he died of AIDS. When Karen voiced the same sentiments at one of her shows, I knew we shared very similar perspectives.
Below is a list of some (but certainly not all) of Karen's work that I have enjoyed over the years. If you ever have the chance, catch one of her shows. It may not be a lightweight evening, but you certainly won't forget it.
The Theory of Total Blame -- Karen's first full-length play, which I saw with Jim in 1989 at the Rapp Art Center in the East Village, depicts the day-to-day interaction of a completely dysfunctional family. As Irene, the "alcoholic matriarch whose pussy smells," Karen opened the first scene. When the curtain rose, she was seated at an old kitchen table, outfitted in a housedress, her legs wide open to expose all, shaping a large slab of ground beef into a meatloaf. That basically set the tone for the entire evening, where I laughed hysterically and, by the end, sat in stunned silence when she ended the performance with a searing interpretation of her famous poem "Black Sheep." All in all, one of my all-time favorite evenings at the theater.
We Keep Our Victims Ready -- A solo performance piece that dealt with oppression of various groups of people and how they are kept in the role of the victim throughout their lives. This show was presented in 1990 at the Kitchen, a performance space on the West Side of Manhattan. Once again, I left feeling emotionally exhausted. This piece received a great deal of attention because it was funded by a grant from the NEA and was considered offensive by people who hadn't even seen it.
Lamb of God Hotel -- Although she did not perform in this play, it was written and produced by Karen Finley. Also presented at the Kitchen, it contained the usual themes (the oppression of those on the fringes of society, etc.), by presenting a group of misfits staying at a run-down hotel. The characters all had a number of memorable lines, however the one that will always stick in my mind is bellowed by Aggie, a wheelchair-bound woman who, after having her diaper changed by one of the other characters, humorously exclaims, "Ain't nothin' like a fresh Pamper!"
The American Chestnut -- This is the first Karen Finley performance I've seen outside of the New York area. Presented on December 4, 1997 at Theater Artaud in San Francisco, The American Chestnut is a series of monologues that tackles a variety of issues, from women's roles in society to Winnie-the-Pooh (who, along with the other Pooh characters, is presented in a different light - patronizing a S&M bar to be precise). When she came out wearing a wedding dress backwards and maniacally pushing around a vacuum cleaner, I knew this was going to be a classic Karen Finley evening and, as usual, she delivered. Visual images (some funny and some quite disturbing) were projected on a screen behind her as she performed, adding a more dramatic feel to some of her pieces. Two of the most memorable ones were Karen's call for a "Victor's Secret" store, where men shop for sexy clothing meant to accentuate their anatomy and Hillary Clinton's apologies to America for being smarter than Bill and having the audacity to keep her maiden name. Not unfamiliar territory for Karen, but still thought-provoking and entertaining.
Shut Up and Love Me -- On May 16, 1999, Karen Finley appeared at the New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco to perform this new piece as part of the "Celebrating Women Festival." Described as a work that "spills the secrets of her psychosexual relationships with United States political figures," Karen went into graphic detail about her ongoing publicly-abusive relationships with Jesse Helms, Newt Gingrich, Orrin Hatch and Bill Clinton. In quite a carefree and humorous manner, Karen initially appeared on stage wearing provocative clothing and then proceeded to strip to a string of '70's disco classics, such as "The Hustle" and "Brick House," sometimes venturing into the audience to offer hands-on body contact. Next on the agenda was an offer to the audience to lick off some of the chocolate she had just slathered all over her body (a $20 donation was required since she is no longer receiving grants from the NEA). From this point forward, she performed her new pieces (most were quite humorous, especially her account of her sexually abusive relationship with Jesse Helms) wearing nothing but chocolate and a pink feather boa. This performance was a first for me, due to the fact that after years of hearing about the famous "chocolate-smeared woman," I had never actually seen Karen perform in this manner. Now I can say I have witnessed what has scared conservatives so much. A book version of Shut Up and Love Me! is due to be published soon.
A Woman's Life Isn't Worth Much -- A 1990 installation at the Franklin Furnace art space in lower Manhattan. The theme can best be described by this quote from the press release given to all attendees: "Karen Finley's installation, 'A Woman's Life Isn't Worth Much,' takes an artform as old as the caves of Lascaux and applies it to contemporary issues. With drawings and stories painted directly on the walls, Finley creates a straight-from-the-gut reaction to the current repressive political climate and the latest attempts to curtail women's rights."
Momento Mori -- This 1992 installation at the Kitchen was really powerful and one of my absolute favorites. Upon entrance, visitors were provided with a small cup of red wine and then taken over to a wall decorated with small flags of every country in the world. We were then asked to be a participant in the creation of the art by spitting the wine on the flag of our choice. We then proceeded to the next room, which featured Karen's writings on the wall. It was dedicated to the overwhelming grief caused by the AIDS epidemic, and also included a hardwood floor strewn with dead leaves, a mound of sand in which visitors were encouraged to place a lit candle in memory of a lost loved one and a bed in which lay an "actor" sick with AIDS, his lover by his side. The final room addressed issues of abortion rights and violence towards women. In the corner was a mattress, upon which sat a woman wrapped in sheets and festooned with flowers. Again, the surrounding walls were used as a canvas for Karen's writings.
Shock Treatment -- This 1990 book published by City Lights Books includes some of Karen's most recognized and controversial works. Comprised of essays, poems and performance monologues, Shock Treatment addresses and condemns misogyny, greed, dysfunctional natures of families, homophobia and various forms of abuse. Not for those sensitive to raw and direct language, the tone of this book was described by a review from C. Carr of the Village Voice: "Obscenity is Finley's subject; not four letter words but the emotion propelling them. Her monologues expose unspeakable acts and unforgivable feelings, deconstructing relationships into the most primal urges." Included is "Black Sheep", one of Karen's most famous pieces.
Enough is Enough: Weekly Meditations for Living Dysfunctionally -- A book that includes Karen's trademark drawings and recommendations on how people can accept their dysfunctional habits instead of trying to fix them. This is a great humor book, with the author advising people to be an asshole (be snide, cut off slow drivers, don't return phone calls, be rude to tourists), to create melodrama ("buying a potholder should be like a scene from the Bible") and to reinvent their family.
Living It Up: Humorous Adventures in Hyperdomesticity -- Karen's latest book is a satirical look at the helpful hints dispensed by Domestic Queen Martha Stewart. Her original publisher, Crown, refused to publish the finished product when it was decided the content may offend the company's more powerful author, Ms. Stewart herself. Well, Doubleday had the guts to publish it and it is brilliant. Some of Karen's advice for brightening up every month of the year: grow marigolds in your armpits in June, for Valentine's Day go the supermarket wearing a giant heart costume and pick up Oreos, Ring Dings and a quart of beer, and for Halloween, make life-size ghost pancakes.
1-900-ALL-KAREN -- All Karen, All the Time! For most of 1998 Karen fans could call this number and hear her thoughts on a specific topic of the day. In her introductory message, she was a little more specific: "I'll talk about sex, my Supreme Court case or whatever the hell I feel like talking about!" On one of the occasions I called, Karen discussed disappointment, sharing an experience where her week-long stint as an instructor at a California art college was canceled because she got sick. In true Finley fashion, she then recited a recent work entitled "Abuse", which began, "After I fistfucked you with my fistful of sapphires..." and continued on by offering a rationalization that many victims of abuse use: "It's better to feel abuse than nothin' at all."
Creating Kali - While waiting for a flight at Palm Springs Airport, I picked up a copy of Details Magazine for some mindless reading and found the following item: "...NEA scourge Karen Finley is set to direct Creating Kali. Described as 'Pulp Fiction on Acid,' the indie comedy stars Rosanna Arquette as an actress who teams up with a sadomasochist to explore Hollywood's seamy side." Sounds like a must-see to me.
Pooh Unplugged - This 1999 book by Karen Finley parodies the
Winnie the Pooh characters. Having spent a lot of time reading the Pooh
books to her daughter, Karen decided to expand on the attributes of
all the denizens of 100 Acre Wood. Some of the scenes: Pooh dealing
with his eating disorder, Eeyore contemplating going on Prozac and the
whole gang participating in a bondage scene. I had to special order
this book, but it was definitely worth the wait. Special labels on the
cover warn readers: "Caution: animals with boners" and "Not
meant for children or stupid adults."
A Different Kind of Intimacy: The Collected
Writings of Karen Finley - This brand new book is a chronicle of
Karen's extensive work. By Karen herself. A collection of short stories,
poems, interviews, artwork and photographs, the book provides an incredible
overview of what has made her famous. Obviously, the definitive Karen
Statshot from the The Onion / 19 April 2000
2003: Karen Finley has created a performance piece where she portrays Liza Minnelli and her daughter plays...David Gest! It was performed at Club Fez in New York City (just a few blocks from where I used to live). A recent article in New York Magazine profiled this unusual work (I will get the date of the article soon for those wishing to access it through their archives.
Psychic Portraits- According to the November 3,
2003 issue of New York Magazine, Karen Finley "wants to be your
psychic friend". Karen performed
her first show at the Kitchen on First Avenue in New York for the
first time in eleven years. Entitled "Psychic Portraits," it
was billed as an appointment-only piece in which the "legendary
George & Martha - "Who's
Afraid of George W. Bush? Not Karen Finley!" A play
written and directed by Karen, which I attended in New York City
on October 4, 2004. Promotional material described the plot
as a secret rendezvous in a hotel room between George W. Bush and
("a domestic diva with legal woes") during the 2004 Republican
Convention - a night you won't soon forget.Exactly. How can anyone
forget the scene where Karen (as Martha) and Neal Medlyn (as George)
are humping on a bed, with Karen screaming, "fuck mama's titties,
Georgie!" An insightful evening of political satire, comedy and
the Finley trademark nude performance, in which she delves into
the twisted psyche of Dubya while playing America's favorite domestic
diva. What could be better? Oh I know - college course with Karen
Karen is also a visiting professor of Art and Public Policy
the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.