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First Person

L.A. Life Is Sweet for Chocolate-Coated Artist

May 24, 2000|KAREN FINLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When I moved to Los Angeles last year, I did it in reaction to losing my Supreme Court case against the National Endowment for the Arts. I could no longer stand my heroic complex as the Joan of Art of freedom of expression. Internally I was burning at the stake with my constant battles to defend the 1st Amendment. And it was New York that had enabled my status as a free speech icon.

When prestigious New York institutions began to close their doors on me, I knew I was in a codependent relationship with the city. Of course. To be a hero, I needed enemies.

I needed to rethink my career. My persona. My work. I needed an archetype make-over.

I looked at New York and fell out of love. Like an ex-lover, I was annoyed by its idiosyncrasies. I was tired of the integrity, the stamina, the survivor mentality required for every New York chore, from taking the subway to wearing black and staying out all night.

I could no longer look at the thing I once loved--New York City--so, on the rebound, I turned to a new lover, a new relationship--Los Angeles.

I threw out 57 Hefty trash bags of art supplies and closed my studio. I threw out everything I'd made that had any associations with the case, which concerned whether or not the government had to support art it considered indecent.

I got an apartment in Los Angeles via fax.

I've lived here a year now, and in retrospect I realize a few archetypal Hollywood moments have changed me. I am no longer a fashionably angry '90s woman.

Shortly after losing my case, I was approached by Playboy, who had seen me in Time magazine sexily covered in chocolate. They wanted me to do the same for them, wearing even less. I met with Marilyn Grabowski, the West Coast photo editor, in her Santa Monica office. A photo of Pamela Anderson Lee hung in the entranceway. We talked about sexual politics and censorship in a way that satisfied me more than any art-world intellectual had.

It seemed so ironic that in 1998 I was Ms. Magazine's woman of the year, and here I was in L.A., being photographed for Playboy.

For eight years I had been posing in chocolate, insisting it was sexual and now--finally--I was putting it into a sexual context.

Larger-than-life bunny photos encircled the studio in various "natural" settings. Bunny in schooner. Bunny in shower. Bunny in a diner. They looked surreal--ready for deconstruction at a Whitney Museum Biennial exhibit.

While I was posing and dripping Hershey's chocolate syrup on my breasts, the photographer said I wasn't posing in a Playboy-sexy way. I was standing there naked, wearing 4-inch heels and dripping chocolate on my breasts. "This is sexy," I insisted. "I went to the damn Supreme Court over this sexy!"

*

I had my first Hollywood experience a few months later when an agent called me. The conversation went something like this:

"Ms. Finley, I love the female voice, but before I go on with any of your ideas, I'd like to tell you about a project here at the agency that has been waiting for you. We've been waiting 20 years to find someone to fill the void. Whoopi turned it down, but I think you could do the project justice: 'The New Female Animal House.' "

Stay open, I told myself. Do not scream.

"It's a no-brainer, Ms. Finley. Lots of young, nubile, multicultural women in a sorority and you would be the headmaster. There would be a food fight--with sloppy joes, corn, mashed potatoes and peas all dripping from young, naked students. With your background of food and the body, well, like I said. It's a no-brainer."

I certainly could not disagree.

"I've also gotten a start on your very own miniseries. I think we could get it on HBO immediately--'The Karen Finley Story.' Your legal and censorship battles."

I told him I liked the idea. "So it would center on the drama of the case personally and publicly? The death threats, my miscarriage, the politicians, the president, Helms?"

No, he said. That isn't the angle we're looking for.

"Then you'll focus on the actual Supreme Court case and decision?"

No, he told me. "The Supreme Court will merely be a backdrop like the bar in 'Cheers.' "

I was ready for a drink after that meeting.

At the time, I was teaching at the California Institute of the Arts, which was embroiled in its own freedom-of-speech debate. Two students had made a drawing of the school's faculty, staff and students engaged in an orgy. Exhibited for classroom critique, the drawing was causing an uproar. An 82-year-old staff member was so traumatized she had to be taken to the hospital. She never returned to her job and later sued the school.

In the midst of all this, I attended an all-school meeting to discuss the drawing. I merely sat there. I refrained from an oratorical rant on the virtues of free speech. I didn't have to bring justice to the moment.

Perhaps it was self-censorship, but I felt it indicated a larger personal shift. I was no longer interested in trouble-making self-involvement. I was more concerned with a post-feminist self-involvement--hair and nails.

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