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karen finley
at fotouhi cramer

by Mia Fineman  

Vacant Chair (Small)

© ArtNet Worldwide 1997

Relaxation Room

I shot myself because I love you. If I loved myself I'd be shooting you.

Pooh please spank me first...

Moral History
1994 - 1997

Moral History (Detail)
1994 - 1997
   A few years ago I visited the freak show at Coney Island after it was colonized by East Village performance artists and transformed into a self-consciously hip outpost of retro-styled hucksterism. With a wink at the presiding spirit of P.T. Barnum, the MC good-naturedly set out to fleece the amenable audience out of another dollar -- an extra admission charge to a very special exhibit in the back room. "Never have you seen anything so revolting," he promised in an elaborate build-up, "This sight will turn even the strongest stomachs! One look and this horrible image will be burned forever into your mind's eye!" We suckers each coughed up another buck and filed into a darkened back room, where we watched, with a combination of amusement and disappointment, a graphic color videotape of a woman giving birth.

Karen Finley's back room installation at Fotouhi Cramer offers a similarly in-your-face look at the harrowing facts of life. In Finley's Relaxation Room, three large color photos show a baby's bloody head gradually emerging from between Mommy's spread legs, accompanied by a tape-loop of her anguished yelps. Plastered on the hospital-green walls around the photos are yellow Post-It notes bearing the phrases that midwives and nurses must use in a vain attempt to quiet a woman in the midst of labor, patronizing imperatives like "Have a happy birthday!" and "Get back on your cloud!" Finley's point about the sanitization of women's experience is well taken, but the real spectacle here is the disconcerting sight a baby being squeezed out of its mother's body like a hairy turd.

The work forcefully demonstrates the conceptual wall that separates the coarse facts of childbirth from the fetish and fantasy of female sexual appeal. In a further elaboration on the artist as supermom, Finley presents an almost invisible painting on black velvet done with breast milk, called Nursing. Next to it is a short video tape-loop of the artist making the work, flinging her breast milk in what appears to be a feminization of the macho, muscular and male wet dream that was Abstract Expressionism. Body fluids are back -- and men don't have `em!

The front gallery is filled with a collection of objects and drawings that are more "domestic" and relatively lackluster, including two flower-encrusted chairs and several large floral paintings with melodramatic cursive inscriptions ("I shot myself because I loved you. If I loved myself I'd be shooting you"). A wall covered with X-rated Winnie the Pooh cartoons did provoke a few giggles -- mostly for the way they combine recovery-movement homilies with the traditional British penchant for filthy baby-talk.

The centerpiece of the show is Moral History, a large library table filled with opened art history books under a sheet of glass on which Finley has scrawled her comments in red grease pencil. "Great spread," she writes across two facing pages of classical nudes, foregrounding with her sarcasm their sex appeal as high-class pinups. "Fucking beautiful" is her judgment of an arty black-and-white photo of two nude (and totally depersonalized) models who have abstract flower shadows cast across their bodies. Other comments focus on biography rather than esthetics, like the snide inscription branding Carl Andre "the OJ of the art world." A bit closer to home is her gripe about Yves Klein's 1960s paintings made by using nude women as paintbrushes: "Yves Klein got away with it. I didn't."

A decade or so ago Finley gained notoriety for brief, intense performance pieces in which she seemed possessed by a banshee narrative of sexual violence, often smearing her body with chocolate or other food (canned yams, in particular). Since then she has become, along with Kiki Smith, one our most complicated and rewarding body artists, whose work reflects the anomalous range of anger and eroticism that is woman's experience.

MIA FINEMAN is a New York writer.