BRATTLEBORO — The Brattleboro Museum & Art Center and Next Stage Arts Project present celebrated performance artist Karen Finley in a one-woman show, Grabbing Pussy/Parts Known, on Friday, Aug. 2, at 8 p.m. at Next Stage Arts Project in Putney.
In 1990, Finley and fellow performance artists Tim Miller, Holly Hughes, and John Fleck gained national notoriety as the “NEA Four,” drawing the ire of then-U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and other conservative politicians for creating “indecent” art.
Helms brandished a photograph of Finley, popularly known as “the chocolate-smeared woman,” on the Senate floor. Finley and the other artists sued the National Endowment for the Arts for withdrawing grants on the grounds of indecency.
National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley went all the way to the Supreme Court, which by an 8-1 vote in 1998 upheld a requirement that any artistic endeavor funded by the NEA consider “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public.” In the court's view, this requirement did not violate the First Amendment.
Finley's current show is based on her new book, Grabbing Pussy (OR Books, 2018) and is presented in connection with the BMAC exhibit “Dona Ann McAdams: Performative Acts,” which features the “chocolate-smeared woman” photograph and images of other performance artists of the time.
The performance will be followed by a Q&A with Finley, McAdams, and Obie- and Bessie-winning producer Lori E. Seid.
In Grabbing Pussy, Finley offers “a breathless cascade of poetry and prose that lays bare the psychosexual obsessions that have burst to the surface of today's American politics,” according to a news release.
Alternately funny and disturbing, Finley explores the Shakespearean dynamics that arise when libidos and loyalties clash in the public and private personas of Donald Trump, Hillary and Bill Clinton, Anthony Weiner, Harvey Weinstein, and others.
In Parts Known, Finley responds to the separation of families at the border, the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, and the struggle and strength of “being a New Yorker [...] the resistance of not being depressed and moving forward with the experience of activism of the past.”
Combined into a single performance approximately an hour long, the two works expand on Finley's career-long pursuit of performatively articulating the injustices committed by the U.S. government and society at large - an undertaking that includes her commentary on the rise of HIV and AIDS in the 1980s (We Keep Our Victims Ready) and her criticism of homophobia (The Father In All of Us).
A performer, artist, writer, musician, poet, teacher, and lecturer, Finley is the recipient of two Obies, two Bessies, and numerous grants from the NEA and NYSCA. Her art is in the collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, among other institutions.
Finley is a professor in the department of Art and Public Policy at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.
In addition to the famous image of Finley, “Dona Ann McAdams: Performative Acts” includes images of activist protests, nuns, people with schizophrenia, racetrack workers, and farm animals. The exhibit is on view at BMAC through Sept. 23. For more information, call BMAC at 802-257-0124.