Performance artist Karen Finley has become a kind of battered and bruised Statue of Liberty for the baby boomers, a naked, chocolate-coated figure holding up a flaming yam – a beacon for latter-day huddled masses yearning to breathe free. When she was one of the celebrated NEA Four (with Tim Miller, John Fleck and Holly Hughes), her performances became a lightning rod for congressional conservatives – Senator Jesse Helms and his ilk – who, throughout this decade, have pressured the NEA to stop funding artists who fail to conform to standards of “decency” (whatever that is) held by the “general American public” (whoever they are). This means that these right-thinkers don't want tax dollars paid to artists who do objectionable acts in public, such as Fleck urinating into an onstage toilet, or Finley inserting baked yams into her anus and smearing her nude body with chocolate – acts with which her name has become practically synonymous.

Finley suddenly found herself bereft of government funding and snubbed by the nation's major art institutions. While Fleck handily built himself a TV career in Hollywood, New Yorker Finley clutched the First Amendment to her breast and sued the bastards. In a double blow to Finley earlier this year, the Supreme Court not only upheld the validity of the “decency clause,” it also ruled that an NEA grant is a prize, not an entitlement, and that, as such, Finley has no freedom-of-speech claim upon it. So what's a gal to do? Follow Route 66, of course.

Finley's performance, The American Chestnut, a work she's been developing over several years, has just opened for a two-week run at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica. Meanwhile, Rosanna Arquette has committed to star in Creating Kali, an independent film Finley co-wrote with Kamala Lopez-Dawson, and which Finley plans to direct. Also, Finley was recently in Santa Monica posing for a nude photo spread, slated to appear in Playboy magazine's January edition.

This last tidbit raises some awkward questions about the authenticity of Finley's stance, given the repeated proclamations in her performances about the persecution women have endured from oglers. It's one thing for Madonna or Vanessa Williams to pose for upscale girlie mags in order to promote their careers, but Karen Finley? Is this the same woman who once sneered so contemptuously at Jack Kerouac's On the Road for being “just for the boys”? Is this the same Finley who uses her body onstage as a weapon against the “beauty myth” – flaunting her cellulite, lactating, menstruating, subverting the youth-oriented, surgically enhanced, airbrushed vision of femininity employed by Playboy over the years? Karen, say it ain't so! Karen, what do you believe in? Are you an artist or a con artist?

In order to get an answer to these and other questions, I spoke with Finley over the phone last week.

I suspect that Karen Finley is a very nice, openhearted person. Oh, there may have been some crap coming over the telephone wire, but at least it was earnest crap, not of the strategic variety generally employed by politicians and arts administrators. Perhaps this was because we didn't talk much about The American Chestnut, for which Finley admitted she had prepared responses. Topics ranged from why she had become sick of New York, to her movie, to Playboy.

I've fudged the sequence of our conversation, because it looks better in print this way, and, besides, it doesn't matter: It's not as though Finley thinks or talks in straight lines. For instance, she spoke at some length about her movie – “a suspense murder thriller” – and I still can't fathom what it's actually about. And her art reflects this digressive and somewhat surreal state of mind, and speech. (This is not an insult. If Salvador Dali had never even completed a sentence, it likewise wouldn't have mattered.)

Finley says that The American Chestnut comes from the idea of indigenous trees that became blighted in the early part of this century. The theme of survival runs through the piece – surviving wars, AIDS, discrimination, racism. She enters vacuuming, wearing a wedding dress backward, and spins into a psychological analysis of Winnie the Pooh characters in an S&M bar. Later, she juxtaposes domestic chores with a series of personal and political events.

“It's cinematic, so I have videotapes,” she says, “one of me squirting breast milk – a comment on Jackson Pollock – then I have me running around nude at MOCA, posing in front of nude statues.”

It's not all that polemical, she insists, noting that the piece brims with jokes and paradoxes. Over the years, Finley says, she's lightened up, having broken free of the AIDS epidemic's darkest days, when many friends were dying.

“I've expanded on a bit about Hillary cleaning up the Oval Office and discovering one of Monica's hairs. And about us realizing that Hillary is finally loved – by the American people! She finally got what she was looking for. She never had problems – like the other first ladies. She isn't an alcoholic, she doesn't have breast cancer. She didn't have any good women's problems. But now she does! Bill did her a wonderful favor.”

I remind Finley of a statement she made at the beginning of the interview, about when she was a struggling actress, and the humiliation of the audition process. She had said that the only roles for which she qualified at 20 years old were as ingenue – the perennial object of so many men's desire. Totally unacceptable. Yet here she is, 20 years later, posing for Playboy. Go figure.

“I don't have a problem with the eroticism,” she explains. “I think that's sometimes a problem with feminists. The problem back then was that I couldn't be looked at in any other way. But in Playboy I also have the interview. The point is, I think, that being a celebrity changes things. I'm 40 going in there – that's interesting in itself – talking about my work . . . I was interested in how they want my pussy to look. I found it all very tame. You know, they brushed my pussy.”

(Actually, I didn't know.)

“I think it's funny that I'm the Ms. Magazine woman of the year, then I go right to Playboy,” she adds. “I think that a lot of my thoughts about this are confused and hypocritical, and I feel totally comfortable with that. Playboy is so behind the First Amendment. The Whitney Museum cancels my show, and there's nobody from the art world calling me up [in support]. I think the porno magazines are the only ones standing behind the First Amendment.”

Clearly, Finley still bristles from her Supreme Court defeat: “I'm looking at my NEA file, and I'm throwing it in the trash. Why should I save it? For history? I mean, who cares after a while?”

She's equally dismayed by charges that she speculated on the NEA debacle as a career move: “I really took the court case seriously, as a civic responsibility.” She says she could easily have left the East Coast five years ago, but stayed to see the case through. Now, there's nothing keeping her there. She's planning a move to L.A. this month.

“I'm tired of being around old money,” she says. “In Rockland County, where I live, they all try to make it look like 1750. But I don't think 1750 was a very good time!

“I'm an ambitious person,” she repeats throughout the interview. “I'm very tired of that world I was in. I'm tired of institutions canceling on me. It became such a fight, so many cancellations. I'm not a masochist. I think I've gotten from New York everything that I can. If I can no longer perform at Lincoln Center or the Whitney Museum, I want to leave. I hope I can contaminate more people with my obscene art,” she says. “As Larry Flynt says, 'Move to L.A., where all the perverts are.'”

The American Chestnut plays at Highways, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica; Thurs.-Sun., 8:30 p.m.; through Oct. 18. Call (323) 660-8587.

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