Karen Finley was in town on Friday night with a 1995 piece called “The American Chestnut.” She entered as a deranged bride, wedding dress slightly askew, vacuuming the aisles at UCLA’s Veterans Wadsworth Theater. Thus began her wayward monologue on the state of women and America that swerved, as is Finley’s wont, between amusing, tedious, scatological, poetical and self-indulgent.
Finley performed against a backdrop of slides and videos that ranged from decorative to gross pleas for attention. One video showed a close-up of squiggling worms on a flat surface, and the audience watched as a hand holding a butcher’s knife came forcefully down again and again on the wriggling, and increasingly frantic, bloody pile. Standing in front of the projection, Finley was meanwhile on a rant about the state of America, in which lovers and grandchildren are lost to AIDS and funding for the arts cut back so far that Big Bird (shown in her next slide) is dead on the floor. You could work to find the contextual meaning of this film, or you might instead be overcome with an urgent need to scan the ads in the program.
But if she’s sometimes maddeningly half-baked, Finley can also be truly funny. Her recent motherhood has taught her to apply old lessons to new texts. Trapped in her daughter’s books, she imagines an entertaining S&M; scenario for Winnie-the-Pooh, and she diagnoses Eeyore to be “plain depressed” and Tigger to be “manic-depressed.”
Her best bit, the one that exhibits her sense of play sans didactics, is a silent video. It shows her running stark-naked through the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, smiling like a guilty kid. She finds two Giacometti sculptures--tall women standing straight with long, dignified necks and their hands at their sides. She places herself next to them while imitating their stance and gives us her most freely felt smile. The glorification/degradation of the female body has always been her favorite subject, and here--by placing impish, ordinary human flesh next to the silent, elongated works of art--she has an eloquent moment free of the hyperbole she normally clings to.
And if she otherwise has serious things to say, her seriousness feels repetitive at this point. Her rant about the victimization of women--she’s fixated on Martha Stewart--is retro now. She says that women are only truly celebrated for domestic virtues, hence the vacuuming. “That’s where you’re supposed to make your decisions--in the house!” she shouts. Tell that to Madeleine Albright.
She plays a variety of characters, from an aging woman who refuses plastic surgery though her husband has left her for a much younger woman, to a librarian manning the phone at a reference desk, another public service in danger of extinction. As always, she is possessed by voices, now familiar ones. She uses the low, intoning preacherly voice and the high, screeching voice that is a parody of feminine hysteria. In that voice, with back to audience, she shrieks instructions to Hillary Clinton about how to be more like the other first ladies. She sometimes uses her straightforward Karen Finley voice, the one in which she seems least comfortable.
Finley also imagines a scenario in which James Bond’s genitals are treated with the same fetishism shown his female companions. She lasciviously imagines the outfits he would wear and treats his genitals with as much cackling derision as she feels is accorded to women. She is often dressed in nothing more than an apron.
She also tells the story of a rape. “Maybe if I’m lucky,” the victim moans, “my face will be smashed up and then I’ll really be free.” At times like this, it’s very clear that while Finley may ask the right questions, you certainly don’t want her to be supplying any of the answers.