Karen Finley: Grabbing Pussy

 

 

 

 

by JK Clarke

 

If there’s an upside to eras of social and political strife, it’s that they tend to produce groundbreaking and significant works of art. Recent examples in music might include the folk and rock of the turbulent 60s (e.g. Bob Dylan, Woodstock, The Rolling Stones), followed by Punk, which produced still more classic statements of protest. So it seems almost natural that the turbulence of contemporary American politics would lend itself to some truly profound new art. Enter Karen Finley. Though Finley is largely known as a literary and performance art appendage of the 1970s and 80s, she can now be counted as the ferocious new poet of the Trump Years. Her spoken word performances taking place Sunday evenings through August 12 at the Laurie Beechman Theatre (in the West Bank Café) is a modern day version of Allen Ginsberg’s debut of his epic poetic wail, Howl, which was first performed in San Francisco in 1955, decrying innumerable social ails of that era.

While Finley’s performances are known for their use of bitter irony, shock and provocation—famously smearing her nude body with chocolate in response to the NEA’s  (via ultra conservative Senator Jesse Helms) restrictions of art grants for being too “erotic”—she began her performance of “Grabbing Pussy” by informing the audience that this was “serious.” Not parody, not jokey, not cutesy. Serious. The artist as historical documentarian. She’s angry. She’s not fooling around. And she wants us to hear it that way.

Finley, no stranger to cutting edge style and fashion, appears on the Beechman stage dressed in black slacks and a ruffled magenta top, and toting a rectangular wicker handbag, with an American flag painted across its surface. It’s a look decidedly more “norm-core” or perhaps “mom-core” than performance artist. She looks like she’d be comfortable at home with Martha Stewart types, sipping early afternoon Chardonnays whilst discussing Kathy Lee and Hoda’s morning antics. The stage behind her is festooned with decorative metal pails, filled with paper flowers that match her top. Her “look” is offset by a slideshow directly behind her that features hazy black and white images of New York of days gone by. Blurry telescopic shots of the Statue of Liberty or subway cars lumbering into grimy midtown stations. The effect is deliberate: pointing out the suburban embrace of a New York City that was once the domain of artists and bohemians; and, more importantly, the universality of the enraged woman, fed up with institutionalized (and now state-endorsed) misogyny.

 

 

Her poems range from the merely profane to the exceptionally enraged, and not merely focused on conservative politicians. In a meditation on the grotesque failings of Anthony Weiner in “Dick Pics, or, the Case of Anthony Weiner” she mocks his obsession with, and penchant for showing off, his penis. The poem closes with dozens and dozens of nicknames for male genitalia, starting off with, “Prick, Anaconda, Baloney Poney . . .” pointing out the utter absurdity of the man’s (and mens’) obsession with the thing.

But Donald Trump is the larger focus of the night, as “Grabbing Pussy” already implies. In the title piece she reduces Trump’s famous recorded comments to their simplistic, brutish core:

Let me grab pussy

Grabbing childlike hands, fingers into the cookie jars

Cold pizza, go grab a slice

A steak well done with ketchup

Grabber, Grabber, Grab her

The bulk of Finley’s poems, including those in the book (available at www.orbooks.com) and not just performed, are most impactful when taken as a whole. It’s a collection, or recollection, of the outrages the Trump administration has piled on one after another, such that each new shock to our national sense of decency and decorum causes us to push aside the last. Compiled together, poetically mocked (“But her emails!!! What about her emails???” she cries out in the pointed “The Magnificent Obsession of the Deleted Emails”) or recalled, they are a shocking catalog of the absurdity, shame and the surreal derailment of the America we once knew. Or better still, exposure of the hypocrisy, bigotry and misogyny that was always lying just beneath the surface and has blossomed within the present administration. She also reads yet unpublished meditations on the recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, the latter she appears to have known rather well. The shock and heartbreak of their deaths dovetails almost a little too nicely with the current socio-political vulgarities and complete a tragic arc of story she set out to tell.

What’s most important and what makes Finley’s performances a must-see, is that her poems are the artistic exposure and reportage of what’s happening in the country right now. Like the Punk and Beat movements, Finley’s not waiting for historical perspective to tell us, artistically, what happened. She’s describing it, in lurid detail, right now, shouting at the world: “Look what’s going on here!!! Can you f***ing believe it???”

 

Karen Finley — Grabbing Pussy. Sunday evenings at 7PM, through August 12 at the Laurie Beechman Theatre inside the West Bank Café (407 West 42nd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues). www.westbankcafe.com/laurie-beechman-theatre

 

Photos: Jennifer Lilya

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