Don't Call Her Honey

Beautiful, badass Karen Finley has made a career out of kicking up controversy. The performance artist has been called everything from "the high priestess of pornography" by British tabloids to "a pinup girl for the First Amendment" by The Village Voice. She leaped onto the national stage in 1990, when she became a member of the notorious NEA Four. Back then Finley was known for smearing her body with chocolate (a substitute for excrement) while talking about the victimization of women. After Jesse Helms tagged the work "obscene," Finley lost her National Endowment for the Arts funding. She banded together with three other "obscene" artists for an eight-year legal battle for free speech. The fight took the Four all the way to the Supreme Court, where they eventually lost their case.

"The fact that that battle was lost in the Supreme Court doesn't mean anything," Finley says. "It just continues." Lucky for us, the war has wound its way to Houston, where Finley is performing her much-lauded one-woman show, Shut Up and Love Me, at Theater LaB. This time around, she's slathering her naked body in gallons of golden honey, perhaps one of the most demure things she's ever done on stage.

Finley performs nude a lot, a fact that's bound to excite the wrath and whatever else of many right-wing railers. But Helms and his cronies were probably most bothered by Finley's penchant for "causing psychic disturbances," which she writes about in her recent memoir, A Different Kind of Intimacy. She traces this supreme ability to upset the status quo back to a moment in 1978 when she was performing in an abandoned JCPenney storefront. She smashed overripe bananas into her mouth and "smooshed" her body "up against the window, slobbering and kissing it in a mix of red-light-district prostitute and locked-up psychopath." The police showed up, put her in a squad car and hauled her away. But the strange thing, according to Finley, was that they kept saying, " 'This woman is nude, insane and on drugs.' Apparently the person who had called the police had described me that way, and the police were repeating the description, even though they could see that I was fully clothed. It was like 'The Emperor's Clothes' in reverse." It was during this time that Finley decided to "use" the fact that she was a woman, and use her body on stage, to make "intense, emotional work."

Disturbing as it might be, Finley's performances shouldn't scare anyone. In the first place, many critics -- even those who know that her onstage nakedness is supposed to be making a political statement -- can't help but comment on how drop-dead gorgeous she is. She did do a spread in Playboy ("During the month you appear," she says, "at any certain point in time, you're basically being jerked off to"). And Laurie Stone of the Los Angeles Times has suggested that Finley is able to seduce people into looking at societal double standards by virtue of her "long legs, round breasts" and "cascades of auburn hair."

In the second place, Finley's new show is a lot less angry than her feminist screeds of the past. Her rants from the '80s and '90s railed against everything from drug addiction to rape to incest and had titles like "Yams Up My Granny's Ass." In her book, she tells of how she smeared her naked fanny with canned potatoes, performed a "peaches-in-the-pussy routine" and douched with champagne while delivering her pro-feminist, anti-patriarchy shtick. All in the name of art, politics and free speech.

But these days Finley isn't taking herself or her work so seriously. In a recent interview, the husky-voiced artist called Shut Up and Love Me a "post-, post-feminist piece."

"It uses humor a lot," Finley says, "and sexuality in a way that the female is not a victim. I'm not using rhetoric in a way that some of my earlier work was known for." The central character "is going through these various relationships, even to the point of propositioning her father."

Hard as it may be to imagine, the wonderfully ironic postmodern script actually pulls this shocking moment off with a Monty Python strangeness that pushes the boundaries of absurdity. The irritated propositioned father responds to his pushy daughter this way: "You think you can just come in here on my valuable time and say, 'Dad, let's fuck!'? What'll it be next week? 'Let's have a three-way with Grandma. I think that would do us all a lot of good?' Or, 'Gee, I'm unhappy with my boyfriend. Will you watch me go down on him and give me some pointers?' "

These out-there monologues end with what Finley calls the "most vibrant visual point of the piece," her "ballet in honey." During this dance, she covers her naked body with gallons of the glimmering, sticky goo. Then she slithers about the stage as the ultimate objectified woman. But don't be fooled. Karen Finley's the kind of honey who'll make you think.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lee Williams