Artist of The Decade: Karen Finley

The Art of the Media Sex Frenzy
By Mat Gleason

"Write something making fun of me," Karen Finley says, after finding out she has been selected our Artist of the Decade.

Her self-effacement is no pose. When right-wing foes criticized her performances for their content, fixating on her use of food as a prop, she retorted out a whole show entitled Revenge of the Chocolate-Smeared Woman. As a guest on television’s Politically Incorrect she has been known to change her opinion on current events mid-show, to the often hilarious fury of her pea-brained pseudo-celebrity "opponents."

Her work onstage smashes stereotypes of Performance Art as Gong-Show castoff fare. They are mesmerizing experiential masterpieces. Finley takes her audiences through contemporary terrain at an accelerated pace, unheard of even in this age of instant access and continual gratificiation. Instead of the "shock" so many would have you believe they center on, her performances tend towards religious frenzy, complete with potent, quasi-spiritual transformation.

Her subject, the body and the body politic, is a theme she has clearly inherited from feminist pioneers like Carolee Schneemann and Hannah Wilke. The use of self as a narrative tool has its roots in that same feminist soil, however, Karen’s personal narrative-as-artwork has had the co-authorship of the Washington Press Corps and the religious Right.

In an art world still confused about experiencing the moment versus purchasing the object, Karen Finley’s artworks balance wicked humor with humanistic morality. That entire ‘90s Brit Pack’s system of manufacturing shock could be contained in one of Karen’s pieces. Take your pick: She raked Jackson Pollock over the coals in documenting the "action" of her Breast Milk Paintings. To double their pleasure, they were executed on velvet! Her X-Rated Winnie the Pooh series of drawings is in its third year of debauching innocence with a wryly innocent hand.

Of course, the Nineties were, comparitively, a slim decade. In the ‘40s you had Stuart Davis, Pollock, Gorky, and Magritte dogpiled under De Kooning’s budding genius. In the ‘00s, masters like Monet and Matisse were blindsided by Picasso & Braque. All of Malevich’s ‘teen triumphs are subsumed under Dada’s Du-champian explosion, and the impact of Kurt Schwitters made in the ‘20s is still rocking the galleries today, while Mondrian’s one way streets hang in a few of them still.

The biggest art world competition to the shock, press, performances and art that was Karen Finley in the ‘90s would have to come from fellow sex & fury seeker Andres Serrano. But King Shutterbug’s reticence to hop in front of the camera flew in the face if all that was Nineties, and after Piss Christ, let’s face it, things got calculated in a hurry.

Another ‘90s art star qualifying with a wide influence would be Matthew Barney, who made "Installation" a term safe for museum docents, however, 1) His work is fundamentally boring, pretentious and obtuse and 2) his need to hold back and control his own image went against the decade’s Tabloid Target Superstar flavor so perfectly embodied by Karen.

So the last big name of pretenders to the ‘90s throne would have to be Damien Hirst. Perhaps the politics of meat and murder of the next century will give his receding hairline a glow, but it could just as easily make him seem like a warmed-over hyping of the more-talented mastery of macabre mammalia, Sue Coe.

The word of the decade was TABLOID and Karen spread the word. In ten short years sex is less of a threat to your life but more of a threat to your career. Fear of sex is a fear of our bodies, their potency and their mortality. For all the faith in God that America preaches, its obsession over the physical is a belial eloquently pointed out by the Art World & America’s profound problem child, Artist Karen Finley.

  • For empowering artists to leave behind the plantation-style system that demands unpaid servitude in exchange for a three-hundred-word review in Artforum.
  • For battling against the equally-right wing Bush and Clinton administrations and their assaults on artists’ abilities to participate in American culture.
  • For tolerating caricatures in national newsweeklies, the wrath of wags and pundits who never experienced her work (or any other art of consequence) and an art world cringing over any creative act expressed without being consigned for fifty percent.
  • For excellent exhibitions in galleries and museums across the country, transfixing performances and provocative public exercises in the wider media (publishing, film, and television). These used art to bring issues to the forefront, all the while neither neglecting nor succumbing to sumptuous presentation.
  • For being the voice of stark raving naked sanity in this pre-packaged prozac culture we have come to call the ninetiesdotcom.
  • For championing content–and that’s radical charged content–in art during a decade otherwise noteworthy for its living in vigorous denial of art’s truly rapturous powers. Were it not for artists like Karen Finley, this "90s Denial" would have reduced all issues and to surface, packaging and Beaux Arts aesthetics.