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A DIFFERENT KIND OF INTIMACY The Collected Writings of Karen Finley By Karen Finley Thunder Mouth Press: 336 pp., $17.95 paper

November 05, 2000|LAURIE STONE | Laurie Stone, a former theater critic for The Nation and The Village Voice, is the author of "Laughing in the Dark: A Decade of Subversive Comedy."

Karen Finley often performs naked, and because she's gorgeous--long legs, round breasts, cascades of auburn hair, cheekbones out to here--nudity is a power position for her. She knows the audience approves of what she looks like. She can do whatever she wants with them. And for nearly 20 years, in such performance pieces as "A Certain Level of Denial," "We Keep Our Victims Ready," "The American Chestnut" and "The Return of the Chocolate-Smeared Woman," she has seduced people into looking at double standards: at how women, the poor and people with AIDS get creamed. Her work--collages of monologues, stand up comedy spiels, prop plays (sometimes performed with other actors) and video projections--is didactic, eye-catching and dissonant.

There are always some screws and bolts that don't quite get incorporated into the do-it-yourself kit of her shows. Wholeness isn't her goal. No two evenings are the same. On stage, she tinkers, kibitzes and free-associates, and these improvisations counterpoint scripted parts. At their best, her pieces rip big, unspoken and difficult-to-articulate desires out of closets. She's disturbing, because she strips down to feelings that circulate in everyone but are usually kept bottled. She revels in her aggression, enjoys smushing around in real and pretend body fluids and thrusting them in people's faces, such as her notorious capers of shoving canned yams up her behind (playing the part of a sociopath molesting his granny) and slathering chocolate over her body (commenting on the case of Tawana Brawley, a teen-age girl, possibly complicit in a hoax, whose torso was inscribed with excrement).

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 12, 2000 Home Edition Book Review Page 2 Book Review Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
The name of the company Philip Morris was misspelled in reviews Sept. 24 and Nov. 5. Last, we misspelled Bertolt Brecht's first name Oct. 22.

Finley's is an art of retrieval: of turning found experience into subjects, defeat into mastery, marginality into an edgy focal point. She would probably press fewer buttons if she leaked shame and turned her exhibitionism into an act of abasement, but her pieces are encounters with unapologetic female flesh. It's a peculiar thing, though: She doesn't always understand her strength. By using seduction to sell an anatomy of sexism, she subverts seduction but she remains an erotic lure. It's not an either/or situation. And because of that ambivalence, her body on stage is dramatic and erotic. The erotic moment is ineluctably dramatic because it triggers contradictory responses (arousal and discomfort, let's say); the dramatic moment is ineluctably erotic because it excites.

Instead of celebrating this tension, Finley's been known to gripe when her work is called sexual. Though she's right to note that female artists are often trivialized by that description, the problem is with prigs who think that sex and seriousness occupy separate spheres. Sometimes Finley, too, thinks that using sex to sell an idea is a bad thing, a stand that's more than a little disingenuous given her vamping. When she's in control of her material and means, she jump-starts consciousness, driving for whatever snakes up in an individual rather than prescribing particular responses. At her most stolid--complaining, beating her chest and righteously sermonizing--she demands a single response: Feel my pain; hate my enemies; curtsy to my moral superiority.

Not surprisingly, similar unsteadiness tips "A Different Kind of Intimacy." The book contains much that's valuable but a lot, too, that's dreadful, especially detached from her performances, which, in their outrageousness, lend even wound-licking texts some wit. Finley is most compelling in this book when she unreels, in an unamplified candid voice, the story of her career. It tells something of the tale of performance art as, during the '70s and '80s, visual artists increasingly looked at art-making as a performance and the finished object (if there was one) as a document of the process. When artists such as Chris Burden, who shot himself in one event, used their bodies as art-making sites and staged gothic horror shows as art works, the artists were free to slink out of galleries and penetrate clubs and theaters.

Finley, who grew up in Chicago and moved to New York in 1983, evokes that time of whirling experiment and thrilling wildness. With a sublet in the East Village and a job as a cocktail waitress at a club called Area, she began performing at Danceteria in the monthly showcase No Entiendes ("You don't understand"), along with John Sex and Ann Magnuson. Some of her work from this period--the monologue "I'm an Ass Man," for example--shows Finley being tough-minded and funny, at once goofing on and inhabiting a vicious kind of aggression, viscerally invoking how much people want to get inside each other's pants, revealing the lie in every kind of decorum.

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