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She's Back 

Performance artist Karen Finley, that "chocolate smeared woman," is back in S.F.

Wednesday, Jan 15 2003
Free speech icon and performance artist Karen Finley knows how to make an impression. The last time I saw the San Francisco Art Institute alumna (in her one-woman show Shut Up and Love Me), she was naked, covered in honey, and writhing on the floor. While she's not quite a household name -- few performance artists are -- many heard of Finley when her outrageous antics (which included coating her nude body with chocolate and yams and painting with her breast milk) landed her in hot water with the National Endowment for the Arts. As one of the NEA Four, a group of artists attacked by right-wingers -- retired Sen. Jesse Helms, in particular -- who found their work too obscene for public funding, Finley made headlines in the early '90s; she took her battle all the way to the Supreme Court -- and lost. Though she's known primarily as the "chocolate-smeared woman," Finley has always produced work that's more about baring her soul than her body. Her willingness to let it all hang out, so to speak, is what made her a natural for dealing with the emotional fallout of Sept. 11, which she addresses in her new show, The Distribution of Empathy.

Back east, Finley taught a class at New York University on turning tragedy into art and led group therapy-style tours of the WTC site, so she's prepared to examine how people cope with disasters and suffering. But don't come expecting a weepy memorial. In Empathy, irony is alive and well. Staged as a cheesy lounge act, complete with food and drink service, Finley's droll take on such a grave matter will certainly irk some folks (even those familiar with her risqué work), but that shouldn't stop her. The risk of offending her audience is standard for Finley. A piano player tickles the ivories in the background while Finley badgers her audience members for their recollections of that tragic day and cracks crude bin Laden jokes in the manner of a bad Las Vegas host. Her victuals have stomach-churning names like "Dead Man Fingers" and "Ground Zero Hero," but she tempers the black humor with tales of personal woe (told in poetic rants) that touch on her unresolved childhood conflicts, her affair with writer Charles Bukowski, and her pregnancy with his child.

While the show deals specifically with how New Yorkers processed their painful emotions, it also tackles broader themes of pain and loss while addressing the state of national mourning that swept the country. Finley borders on bad taste in Empathy, but she doesn't make light of the catastrophe. Rather, she uses wit to challenge the absurdity of a world in which a tragedy like Sept. 11 could happen in the first place. It should be interesting to see how she changes in the next decade now that her archnemesis Helms is out of the picture.

About The Author

Lisa Hom


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