Karen Finley Channels Dead Celebrities for Perform Chinatown, But Event Fails to Add Up to a Satisfying Whole

NICK+JAMES experiment with some bold, operatic dance moves.

Carol ChehNICK+JAMES experiment with some bold, operatic dance moves.

Perform Chinatown, a one-night festival of performance art, took over the Chinatown arts district on Saturday night. More than 40 artists occupied various nooks and crannies of Chung King Road and beyond with performances that were short or long, dour or humorous, heavy or light. While there were some excellent artists in the mix and several pieces that were worthy of extended consideration, the event as a whole failed to add up to a strong, cohesive presentation.

This is the fourth year that a performance art festival has been organized in Chinatown. The event began its life in 2009 as Perform! Now! and that iteration remains the strongest and most memorable. Organized by a small coalition of local artists and gallerists, that event featured, among other works, a now-legendary performance in which Dawn Kasper roared up in a pickup truck, blasted death metal and screamed about nihilism for five minutes, then roared back down the street again, hitting a parked car in the process. Kasper has since gone on to fame and glory via this year's Whitney Biennial. There also was a lovely recital of Yvonne Rainer's iconic Trio A dance by artist Simon Leung.

Performance art legend Karen Finley

Eric Minh SwensonPerformance art legend Karen Finley

In 2010, the event expanded to encompass an entire weekend, and memorable turns were again made by artists like Zackary Drucker, who delivered a brutal "read" of her hipster art audience, and visiting Croatian Vlatka Horvat, who spent a day arranging chairs into striking formations in the shallow waters of the L.A. River.

The event was renamed Perform Chinatown in 2011, which was the same year that things took a dive downhill. The new organizers apparently were unable to get along with each other, and a disjointed and largely uninteresting event was the result.

This year's organizers, Mat Gleason of Coagula Curatorial and Charlie James of Charlie James Gallery, are again new at the helm. While they were certainly competent, managing to corral a printed schedule of events and execute a good PR campaign, neither is known for having significant ties with the local performance-art scene. (Many of the first two years' organizers were performance artists and curators who specialized in performance.) The resulting event appeared busy but lacked a unifying substance or energy. Highly accomplished artists exhibited next to highly amateurish ones, and a messy sort of circus tone was in the air. A distinguishing curatorial eye was not present.

Still, there were highlights to be had. The sold-out, headlining act was '80s performance art legend Karen Finley, who was flown in from New York to give her first L.A. performance in 14 years. Finley is still best known as a member of the notorious NEA 4 -- four NEA-supported artists who were singled out by right-wing crusader Jesse Helms for their "obscene" practices in a campaign that eventually resulted in the crippling of the National Endowment for the Arts. Finley's early performances involved shoving yams up her ass onstage or smearing chocolate all over her naked body.

Alex Shaeffer, left, live-painted most of the night's performances, including Kate Gilbert's Lucy.

Carol ChehAlex Shaeffer, left, live-painted most of the night's performances, including Kate Gilbert's Lucy.

She has since moved past such flashy tactics but maintains a focus on exorcising the darker elements of the human psyche. In recent years she has taken to doing automatic-writing exercises with the spirits of dead celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Mike Kelley, Rodney King, Donna Summer, Amy Winehouse and Charles Bukowski. She seems to channel their deepest thoughts, and then produces watercolors inspired by what she has channeled. For her performance on Saturday night, Finley presented a slideshow of her artwork and delivered dramatic readings of their accompanying words.

Margie Schnibbe challenges a potential date to a questionnaire and wrestling match.

Carol ChehMargie Schnibbe challenges a potential date to a questionnaire and wrestling match.

This got really heavy at times, as when she read a note from Whitney Houston to daughter Bobbi Kristina: "I was always a caged lion with a whip and chair, but you don't have to be that. ... You need to finish school, get into a program, give of yourself to others." The air in the room became thick after Finley shared the dark projections of a long list of tragically dead people. It didn't feel gratuitous, however; it felt like a necessary, if painful, acknowledgment of shared trauma and heartache.

Karen Finley channels the spirit of Charles Bukowski.

Carol ChehKaren Finley channels the spirit of Charles Bukowski.

Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, the youngest artist to be included in the "Made in L.A." biennial exhibition at the Hammer Museum, presented a thoughtful piece on which she has been working for a while, titled A Knee Grow Contract. In it, she sits at a table and presents copies of a contract to members of the public for review, negotiation and signature.The contract consists of a litany of sentences pertaining to the Knee Grow (a pun on Negro), such as, "I will not tell a Knee Grow that he/she/it is 'So articulate!'" and "I will fuck the Knee Grow" and "I will be exceptional for a Knee Grow student."

Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle negotiates A Knee Grow Contract.

Carol ChehKenyatta A.C. Hinkle negotiates A Knee Grow Contract.

The document is interesting because it occupies a variety of positions and viewpoints and all are open to interpretation. Hinkle sat at her table for several hours and received a steady stream of visitors, all of whom were eager to engage with her in discussing the terms of the contract, what they meant, what they agreed or disagreed with and how they could edit it before signing. Hinkle is keeping an archive of the altered and signed contracts, and she will be doing this performance again in the future.

Alise Spinella and friends slowly perform LOCATED.

Carol ChehAlise Spinella and friends slowly perform LOCATED.

Other highlights that I was able to catch included NICK+JAMES' wonderful rehearsal sketches for an upcoming piece exploring overly dramatic, operatic dance moves; Alise Spinella's absorbing silent-movement meditation; Kate Gilbert's haunting, two-hour-long performance Lucy, in which she slowly crawled along the ground nude; and Margie Schnibbe's comic interpretation of the dating process as a cartoonish wrestling match. Perform WOW!, a mini festival within the festival, was presented by the gentle beings benevolent association inside of an upstairs apartment called Small Form Space. As it did last year, Perform WOW! provided a cozy and energetic gathering spot for intimate performances that was a refreshing respite from the scattered chaos outside.

Guan Rong wows a crowd with instant sculptures and musings on marriage.

Carol ChehGuan Rong wows a crowd with instant sculptures and musings on marriage.

Carol Cheh blogs about L.A.'s performance art scene at Another Righteous Transfer! Follow her on Twitter at @righteoustrans. For more arts news follow @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

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Charlie James Gallery

969 Chung King Road
Los Angeles, CA 90012