Although dead now for more than 20 years, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis came to the Broad museum over the weekend to deliver an art lecture on the culture’s fixation on images of trauma.
This is a topic in which Ms. Onassis is both an expert and an emblem. And as impersonated by the performance artist Karen Finley in “The Jackie Look,” the widowed first lady unleashed her hard-earned wisdom with a distraught intensity that more than once brought her to the edge of a nervous breakdown.
But the most effective touch was the sphinx-like expression Finley’s Jackie wore, the frozen half-smile of a woman who knows that every step she takes will be photographed. As a former photojournalist and relentless subject herself, she was only too aware of the permanence of certain images. Those of her in the pink wool suit splattered with the blood of her husband, John F. Kennedy, have been seared into national memory.
This was a posthumous appearance. Finley’s Jackie thanked her son, John F. Kennedy Jr., for having the courtesy to die after her. (How much tragedy can one woman bear?) And she kept coming back to Michelle Obama, the first woman in the White House to rival her as a style icon — a subject that filled her with admiration as well as with sorrow for all that was destroyed on that fateful day in Dallas.
Controversial performance artist Karen Finley performs in “The Jackie Look” in the Oculus Hall at the Broad Museum(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Controversial performance artist Karen Finley emotes in “The Jackie Look.”(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Performance artist Karen Finley invites members of the audience to come up to the stage and dance during “The Jackie Look.”(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
With images of the former First Lady projected behind her, performance artist Karen Finley performs in “The Jackie Look.”(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Karen Finley’s performance of “The Jackie Look” began with a short film of the actress as the First Lady.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Karen Finley in “The Jackie Look.”(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Finley’s performance inaugurated the Broad’s “The Tip of Her Tongue” series that will bring feminist artists to perform at the museum. It was an apt locale for “The Jackie Look.” One flight above the Oculus Hall, where the show played Friday and Saturday, hangs Andy Warhol’s “Twenty Jackies” repetitively showing the young widow standing in front of a uniformed guard as President Kennedy is laid to rest.
In a video prelude, Finley’s Jackie rode the Broad’s steep escalator to the third floor, where she took a selfie in front of the Warhol. In a winkingly self-referential moment to her own controversial history as an artist infamously denied funding by the National Endowment for the Arts on moral grounds, she paid homage to Barbara Kruger’s untitled work containing the words “Your body is a battleground.”
This playful introduction set up expectations that weren’t always fulfilled by the piece, the bulk of which consisted of Finley lecturing from notes that too often seemed cobbled together from critical studies books you might find in the lobby of REDCAT. The overly explanatory tone of the language reminded me also of some of the Broad’s didactic panels, which presume to tell you how a given work will make you feel — a clunky trend in modern curating that undermines the unrestricted power of art.
Finley doesn’t need academic prose to bolster her authority. She is at her most persuasive when most wayward. The most memorable parts of “The Jackie Look” weren’t when she was elucidating the way Onassis has come to serve our cathartic need for a soignée image of catastrophe and survival.
Los Angeles Times photographers document the year in arts and culture.(Los Angeles Times)
When the Mariinsky Ballet performed “Cinderella” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Oct. 8, even the wondrous Diana Vishneva as Cinderella couldn’t bring unity to the movement, but she danced with flawless, fearless authority. Read more >>(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins leaves a rehearsal of his play “Appropriate,” opening Oct. 4 at the Mark Taper Forum, to eat first with a reporter, then later with his agent and some unspecified Hollywood people, who presumably hope to lure him away from the field and city where he has experienced meteoric success in the last five years. Read more >>(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Kerstin Anderson takes charge of Maria von Trapp with a spirit so joyful, a physicality so lithe and coltish, and a soprano so flawlessly soaring that only Frau Schraeder, Capt. Von Trapp’s jilted fiancée (Teri Hansen), could possibly resist her charm. Read the Oct. 1 review >>(Los Angeles Times)
Soprano Abigail Fischer performs Oct. 7 in the opera “Songs from the Uproar” at REDCAT in Los Angeles.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Moisés Kaufman’s muscular revival of “Bent,” which played at the Mark Taper Forum, opening on July 26, renders what many had written off as a parochial drama about the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany into a gripping tale of love, courage and identity. Read review >>(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Malaviki Sarukkai performing at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on July 19, 2015. Sarukkai is the best-known exponent of South Indian classical dance.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Bramwell Tovey conducts the L.A. Phil with pianist Garrick Ohlsson in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at the Hollywood Bowl on July 14, 2015.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Argentine dancer Herman Cornejo performs in the West Coast premiere of “Tango y Yo” as part of the Latin portion of BalletNow.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Jake Shears plays Greta in Martin Sherman’s play “Bent” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles through Aug. 23, 2015.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Dancers rehearse a one-night-only performance choregraphed by Raiford Rogers, one of L.A.'s most-noted choreographers. This year the dance will be to a new original score by Czech composer Zbynek Mateju.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Oscar-winning actor Ben Kingsley in Los Angeles on July 9, 2015.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Mia Sinclair Jenness, left, Mabel Tyler and Gabby Gutierrez alternate playing the title role in the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre. The three are shown during a day at Santa Monica Pier on June 16, 2015.(Christina House / For The Times)
American Contemporary Ballet Company members Zsolt Banki and Cleo Magill perform a dance routine originally done by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. This performance was presented as part of "Music + Dance: L.A.” on Friday, June 19, 2015.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Miguel, a Grammy-winning guitarist, producer, singer and lyricist, is photographed in San Pedro on Wednesday, June 10, 2015. His new album "Wildheart,” explores L.A.'s “weird mix of hope and desperation.”(Christina House / For The Times)
Los Angeles-born artist Mark Bradford is photographed in front of “The Next Hot Line.” This piece is part of his show “Scorched Earth,” installed at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, June 11, 2015.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
The Los Angeles Opera concluded its season with “The Marriage of Figaro,” with Roberto Tagliavini as Figaro and Pretty Yende as Susanna, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
“Trinket,” a monumental installation by Newark-born, Chicago-based artist William Pope.L, features an American flag that is 16 feet tall and 45 feet long. The work is on display at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA through June 28.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Alex Knox, from left, Carolyn Ratteray, Lynn Milgrim and Paige Lindsey White in “Pygmalion” in spring 2015 at the Pasadena Playhouse.(Mariah Tauger / For The Times)
On March 17, Google celebrated the addition of more than 5,000 images to its Google Street Art project with a launch party at the Container Yard in downtown Los Angeles.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Ric Salinas, left, Herbert Siguenza and Richard Montoya, of the three-man Latino theater group Culture Clash, brought their “Chavez Ravine: An L.A. Revival” to the Kirk Douglas Theatre to mark the group’s 30th anniversary. The play ran from Feb. 4 through March 1.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
It was when Finley herself, in all her emotional extremity, would peek through the Jackie disguise and voice satiric outrage at the transformation of victims into objects of consumption. Her search for assassination memorabilia on EBay would have been hilarious were it not such a damning commentary of the American practice of commodifying everything.
Finley’s Jackie invited a few audience members to the stage to dance along with her to Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” a song evoking those hedonistic days at Studio 54 where she’d escape the role society had imprisoned her in by taking a little drink and letting loose on the dance floor. Finley’s ecstatic gyrations were more eloquent than any of her earlier jargon.
The most movingly theatrical moment, however, came when Finley’s Jackie defended daughter Caroline’s incessant repetition of the phrase “you know” during a TV interview by chanting the words in a voice that grew hoarse with anger, sadness and disgust over the mockery women are subjected to in the media.
Solo artists like Finley are most potent when acting out meaning. High-minded ideas sound borrowed in her mouth. The first lady of performance art, as she has been dubbed, doesn’t have to continue covering her body in chocolate to grab our attention. But she’s never more dangerous than when wielding herself as a theatrical weapon.