A Certain Level of Denial

Karen Finley

at Steppenwolf Theatre,

through April 23

Naked except for a flower-festooned hat and black slip-on shoes, Karen Finley lies motionless onstage in a tightly framed box of light roughly the size of a grave. One moment she speaks as a dispassionate psychiatrist barely able to conceal his sexist biases, asserting that because she’s naked she must desire him, and the next she becomes his long-suffering patient, doing her best not to scream when she tells him, “Women are tired of having their bodies viewed as a loaded gun.” During this ten-minute scene Finley hardly moves a muscle and never once raises her voice, delivering a carefully crafted comedy routine we only wish we didn’t find so funny.

This is a brand-new Karen Finley: calm, self-contained, unfailingly precise. The blistering, trancelike frenzy that once characterized her performances has been replaced for the most part by more measured, methodical tones. While she continues to explore the festering underbelly of American culture–its sexism, racism, homophobia, and general eagerness to destroy whatever it fears or misunderstands–she does so without embroiling herself quite so bodily in the fray.

If A Certain Level of Denial, commissioned by New York’s Lincoln Center in 1992, marks a distinct transition in Finley’s work, it should come as no surprise that the piece feels somewhat disjointed and uneven. She’s always assembled her solo performances out of disparate parts–personal anecdotes, historical atrocities, lyric digressions–and A Certain Level of Denial is part of this lineage. But in The Constant State of Desire and We Keep Our Victims Ready, her most recent pieces in Chicago, Finley seemed a sort of medium, possessed by the spirits of society’s dispossessed, most prominently abused women and battered gay men. Their voices ripped out of her with a stunning intensity. This consistent (if terrifying) persona helped unify those pieces. Here Finley experiments with several much more subdued voices–the seductive but impersonal authority figure, the tremulous religious testifier, the sobby melodramatic damsel–but she hasn’t quite found a way to integrate them, to give the piece a unified sensibility.

But then Finley may not be concerned about formal unity. As she states in her press materials, she is “interested in the subject matter first and the form second.” And in many ways her disregard for conventional theatricality is one of her greatest strengths. She never acts, never pretends, rarely conceals anything, including her own body. She doesn’t even conceal the bodily functions many of us might like to have concealed: when she appears onstage to begin the piece, part of a tampon clearly protrudes from between her legs. She stops when she needs a drink of water, takes all the time she needs to change a costume piece, and generally refuses to make her work entertaining. The message is clear: the piece is not necessarily to be enjoyed but to be witnessed, even endured.

And what we witness–or endure, for those who don’t have much tolerance for such nonpackaged performance–is a passionate, intelligent woman relentlessly speaking her mind (if nothing else, her piece painfully demonstrates how few others do). She begins by calling out to an uncaring America in the midst of a plague–“Hello, mother, your son is dying!…Hello, trendy East Village artist!” No matter where she calls, she gets “no answer.” Her opening monologue, an intricately woven tapestry of horror stories, is absolutely breathtaking: an ambulance driver doesn’t know the way to the hospital, no one attends the dying AIDS patient in the hospital, young men return to their boyhood homes to die. “These are mean times,” she succinctly concludes. By jumbling so many disasters together while at the same time adopting a bitterly ironic tone–“Yeah, I’d like to see Bono on welfare”–she creates an exquisite but excruciating portrait of contemporary America, grotesquely parodying the most heinous of social ills.

Finley’s true genius lies in her ability to burrow deep into the recesses of catastrophe. We may think things are bad, but she shows us just how bad they are. Even artists–those we turn to for help in understanding–are complicit in America’s moral bankruptcy. After lamenting the suicide of friend and fellow performance artist Ethyl Eichenberger, for example, Finley imagines someone pressing Ethyl’s slit wrists against a canvas to create a painting, an appalling metaphor for artists’ tendency to distance themselves from real tragedy, objectifying it rather than experiencing it. “Let me tell you about performance art!” she howls, in that horrifying possessed voice so familiar from her past work.

Finley digs this deep for a good portion of the evening. But for perhaps a quarter of the piece her images seem a bit thin, and she aims at targets too easily hit. In one long section, for example, she imagines herself as a young girl trapped in a car with her father as he mercilessly shoots and then runs over a doe and her fawn. “It must have been a female deer,” the father sneers, “because it was so slow.” It seems a bit Disney-esque to use deer as symbols of victimized innocence, and to further stretch the metaphor to cover misogyny is overkill. When she confronts misogyny head on, by contrast, she makes much more powerful statements; one of her paintings (projected behind her) shows the head of a forlorn young woman beneath which is scrawled, “I was never expected to be talented.”

By adopting a more subdued tone Finley creates a real dilemma for herself. The fervor of her previous performances ingeniously made empathy impossible. Empathy would only be smug and self-congratulatory, she seemed to say; we could watch the piece and go home imagining that we had done enough by feeling so deeply about those less fortunate. The underlying message of her work seemed to be: you shouldn’t empathize–you should be horrified. But many of the later sections in A Certain Level of Denial seem to demand an empathic response (her lengthy eulogy of Eichenberger, for example), yet they’re so intentionally overwrought that they become almost melodramatic. In these sections Finley seems so self-absorbed, in essence performing for her hand-held microphone rather than the audience, that the scope of the work shrinks dramatically.

In some ways, Finley speaks most poignantly when she speaks for others, channeling those voices our society typically chooses not to hear. Laurie Winer, writing in the Los Angeles Times, is exactly wrong when she suggests that Finley’s pain is her art; to the contrary, everyone else’s pain is her art. With this new piece, however, Finley experiments with a much more personal voice, one that holds the promise of greater intimacy but occasionally brings the piece to the edge of self-indulgence. Striking the perfect balance on this precipice is Finley’s next great challenge.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Michael Overn.