at Beacon Street Gallery and Theatre

“The fight goes on.” –Pat Murphy, director of arts, Beacon Street Gallery

Stripped down to her infamous panties, the notorious Karen Finley scooped scandalous gobs of chocolate out of a candy box and slathered them across her controversial chest. “This,” she said dryly, “is what they’re scared of.”

You had to laugh. I mean, it was so absurd. Here was this incredibly earnest woman, clumping around in red galoshes and ranting against the patriarchy as she slapped shit-brown icing on her scrawny flesh. Hardly sexy. And yet Jesse Helms and the Idiot Right are busy attacking Finley as the height of subversive lasciviousness, making her a focus for their campaign against obscenity in the arts. This–nothing more than this dripping mess of sugar-glazed half-naked artist–was all they were scared of.

Though when you think about it, it makes perfect sense that they’d be scared–not because Finley’s so sexually provocative, but precisely because she isn’t. If the woman were merely sexy, Helms and company would have a much easier time defining her status within their simpleminded heaven-hell, housewife- whore cosmology. They’d like nothing better than to think she’s sexy. Sexy’s familiar. They can handle sexy.

But she’s not sexy. In fact, I’ve never seen a naked woman–other than the one sliced wafer thin and exhibited in glass panels at the Museum of Science and Industry–who evoked less of the erotic than a naked Finley. There’s an article in the current issue of American Theatre magazine, “The Actor as Object of Desire,” that discusses the phenomenon of the carnal charge that runs between performer and audience. Finley’s art, her whole literal and figurative stance, is a conscious negation of that charge. And by extension, a negation of all the voltage that runs through all the frayed, sexist wiring strung across our society. The offhanded way she displays her shock of pubic hair, the very lay of her breasts on her rib cage–so stubbornly unremarkable, so defiantly matter-of-fact–are part of that negation. Maybe that’s why Finley wears the red galoshes: to ground herself and break the circuit.

Or reroute it, anyway. Just because Finley’s work isn’t sexy doesn’t mean it’s got no sexual energy. On the contrary: Finley’s shows run on sexual energy. Not on sexual energy expressed in the usual pop manner, as seduction or sublimation, but on sexual energy expressed as a pure and fundamental rage.

An almost divine rage. Several critics have noticed the shamanic element in Finley’s work: like a shaman, she seems to disappear in performance, allowing herself to be possessed by other voices. When I saw her last solo piece, A Constant State of Desire, I thought the voice possessing her must belong to the Great Goddess Kali in her persona as the Destroyer of Everything That Lives. It was a terrifying voice, full of apocalyptic fury; not just willing but desperate to bring a bloody end to this culture of greed and abuse, this culture where rape–psychic, sexual, economic rape–constitutes the essence of human interaction.

The angry Kali shows up again in Finley’s new solo, We Keep Our Victims Ready. She’s in the testimony of a working mother who literally slaves her guts out, trying to keep her pregnancy a secret from the boss. And in the declarations of an alcoholic mother who thinks there should be a new holiday called Dependence Day. And in the confessions of a fear-paralyzed and desolated woman whose comment that her “life is worth nothing but shit” incites the celebrated chocolate-smearing episode.

Most of all, Kali’s in the title passage, where Finley appropriates the Holocaust as a parallel for our treatment of gay people, AIDS victims, and the homeless. The metaphor seems both too easy and too extreme at first–especially when Finley equates Hitler’s SS with Pat Robertson’s 700 Club. But the logic grows more painfully indisputable as she pounds away at it in her grim, obsessive, fantastical manner, in her howling way: When neglect means death for thousands and when that neglect is motivated by prejudice–the determination that certain people aren’t fit to live–then, yes, it is genocidal to insist, as Senator Helms has, that government AIDS programs be gutted. Finley’s right. We’re running an Auschwitz here–it’s just that the ovens, as she says, are running “at a slower speed.”

The next section of the piece expands on this awful vision. Stuccoed by now in layers of chocolate, red candies, alfalfa sprouts, and tinsel–encrusted like something risen from the earth; or, more accurately perhaps, through the pipes–Finley assumes the voice of a rape victim whose sense of herself is entwined with the image of a veal calf: a tortured creature penned in a tiny stall and raised in its own shit, only to make somebody a nice meal.

To paraphrase William Burroughs, Finley shows you the holocaust at the end of your fork. Her wrath is enormous. It’s a Kali-like wrath. Society for her is a great maw, consuming the weak. She expects finally to see it consume itself.

At least the angry Kali in her expects that. But there’s another aspect to Finley here, as well. A deeper, calmer, more generous aspect. It’s by no means as powerful or pronounced as the anger; it hardly even seems comfortable where it appears. And it wasn’t present at all in A Constant State of Desire. Still, it shows up in We Keep Our Victims Ready: Something of Kali’s nurturing face. Something of the Great Goddess as Mother of Us All.

The full mystic vision of Kali includes birth as well as death, the cornucopian vagina as well as the hungry mouth. Finley definitely resists any suggestion that the life force can function in our murderous culture–resists it hard: there’s a point in the piece where the veal calf-rape victim actually discusses cutting out her vagina so as to make a hole no one can fuck. Even so, the Mother appears.

You can find hints of the Mother throughout the piece–even in its satiric preamble called “It’s Only Art,” where Jesse Helms gets every ugly thing he ever wanted, only to find himself engulfed in the creative backlash: “Everyone started making pictures of houses on fire, of monsters and trees becoming penises, pictures of making love with someone of the same sex, of being naked on street corners, of pain and dirty words and things you never admitted in real life.” That’s a bit of the Mother talking.

But her fullest incarnation comes in the final section of the piece, called “Departure.” Ritually washed and wrapped in a clean sheet, Finley sits beside an empty bed and speaks a eulogy that starts out seeming to be about a friend lost to AIDS–but expands to include losses occasioned by the refusal or inability to love.

Much of the section is hokey or self-pitying. A passage called “Black Sheep,” in particular, amounts to nothing more than a variation on the common adolescent suicide fantasy: the old “I’ll be dead and you’ll be sorry and everybody will realize how wonderful I was but it’ll be toooooo late” gambit. And some genuinely beautiful passages fail because Finley can’t adapt her ululative style to encompass tenderer feelings. Those tenderer feelings are unmistakably present, though. And welcome. Even the notoriously wrathful Finley seems to understand that anger isn’t an adequate response to American killer culture. Somebody’s got to minister to the victims.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dona Ann AcAdams.