“The American Chestnut is a tree that was once the most abundant tree in America,” writes performance artist Karen Finley. “A blight during the early part of this century has given an illness to practically all American Chestnut trees. The suffering trre [sic] stays in an eternal limbo of never developing to maturity–or either they die.” The passage is quintessential Finley: messy, repetitive, guileless, resonant. As an artist, she’s drawn to the rot, decrepitude, and trauma of our rotting, decrepit, traumatized society. In her newest solo work, The American Chestnut–presented in one performance only as part of Dance Chicago ’98, of all things–Finley wanders in semi-Joycean fashion through the graveyard of American domesticity, where female creativity and sexuality have been mummified for decades. The piece focuses on two women: middle-aged housewife Lily, rendered useless by the loss of her beauty and fecundity, and young librarian Nicky, whose nubile sexuality reduces her to a repository of male fantasies. As always, Finley uses nudity to challenge patriarchal assumptions about “women’s place” in Western art; this piece includes a video of Finley walking naked through an art museum, comparing herself to the female nudes there (take that, you narrow-minded NEA pinheads). Critics love to warn audiences about Finley’s scandalous doings–the New York Times broke into a schoolmarmish sweat at the sight of Finley squirting milk from her breasts in The American Chestnut. But the only people who should be warned away are those unwilling to confront the darkest regions of our national psyche. Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, 773-935-6860 or 312-902-1500. Thursday, October 22, 7:30 PM. $20. –Justin Hayford

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.