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Sweet Sticky Thing

Karen Finley Explores Sex and Violence, Condiments and All

Honey-Glazed Ham: Karen Finley shows off her artistic assets in Shut Up and Love Me.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 4/11/2001

Shut Up and Love Me

Karen Finley

Reviewing Karen Finley's performance-art piece Shut Up and Love Me is damn near impossible. First of all, it's never really the same show twice--on opening night, she ended up swinging around her tampon after it slipped out. On Saturday night, she talked about the event with a twinkle in her eye but didn't repeat it. The other reason it's so hard to review this show is because it's like getting into a fight with a drunk at a bar: It'll either floor you or flail about without making contact of any kind.

Shut Up includes stories but is in no way a traditional narrative. The difficult issues of sexuality, family, and the violence of emotions are tempered with freewheeling exuberance. Whether it leaves you filled with joy, revulsion, or utter bewilderment is up to you. It is, however, definitely a spectacle. Come on, how often do you go to the theater and see a naked woman rolling around in honey?

That said, don't go to Shut Up expecting a striptease. If you're looking for that, you'd be better served going to the Block. Sure, there's plenty of nudity and dancing in this show, and Finley may even end up rubbing her breasts on your head. But these segments are interspersed with dark yet humorous stories of women with war-hero fetishes or a very literal desire to fuck their fathers, and a healthy dose of foaming at the mouth.

In other words, all in a night's work for Finley, a member of the infamous NEA Four (a group of artists whose National Endowment for the Arts funding was revoked in 1990 when their work was deemed indecent) whose performances have included smearing chocolate on her naked body. Since then, Finley has posed for Playboy, been named one of Ms. magazine's "Women of the Year," made appearances on Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher, and continued performing, decency be damned.

Finley's stock in trade is locating the echoes of violence and exploitation lurking in the realms of sex, psychology, and modern American culture. But in Shut Up and Love Me she treads that territory with a sense of joy and humor, a childlike glee that contrasts with the show's more darker moments. She sets the tone from the moment she walks on stage, lifting her skirt and revealing her thong-clad ass as she cavorts to a soundtrack of Barry White, fondling her breasts and giving audience members impromptu lap dances. From there we follow along as best we can as Finley portrays a series of women in deeply dysfunctional, occasionally hard-to-follow relationships. She often gets so involved in her digressions that trying to figure out who's who in these stories becomes very difficult. But her detours are also what keeps the show from dissolving into painful pretentiousness. She uses these digressions to laugh at herself, joke about the narcissism of performance art, and connect with the audience.

The other thing that keeps this esoteric and occasionally disturbing look at sexuality going is Finley's talent for one- liners. When describing a woman giving a man head on a bus, she has the bus driver say, "I don't know about Giuliani, but this is why I live in New York." Later on, as she portrays another sexual encounter, she growls, "He says he's not an intellectual. I said, 'Prove it. Start fucking and stop thinking.'" Finley's delivery is nothing if not energetic, and the aforementioned honey romp has an odd beauty.

So, what is Shut Up and Love Me? A strange odyssey into the complicated, outrageous world of Karen Finley. You may love it. You may hate it. But you won't be bored.

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