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She's Professor Finley now

The artist has gone from NEA controversy to NYU faculty, but an Emerson show proves she's still confrontational

For a few years in the 1990s, Karen Finley, whose exhibition "Nation Building" is on view at Emerson College, was one of the most famous artists in America.

Known for wildly transgressive, politically confrontational performances involving offensive language and food products that she applied liberally to her own naked body, Finley won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990. The timing was unfortunate. Exhibitions by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano that were indirectly funded by NEA money already had attracted the attention of such conservative politicians as Senator Jesse Helms and Representative Newt Gingrich, who began crusading against the use of taxpayers' money to support art that they regarded as obscene, anti - religious, and un-American. When they heard about Finley's NEA award, they'd found their poster girl.

Under Republican pressure, the NEA rescinded Finley's grant and those of three others. The artists in turn claimed censorship and sued for restitution. The case of the NEA Four went all the way to the Supreme Court, which found against the plaintiffs.

Finley became a minor celebrity. She was a frequent guest on "Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher," played Tom Hanks's doctor in the film "Philadelphia," was named Woman of the Year by Ms. magazine, and appeared nude dripping chocolate sauce on herself in Playboy magazine.

Amid all that, few people ever got to know just what kind of an artist Finley is. Now Boston art followers can at least partly find out from the Iraq war-themed drawings, photographic works, and installations in her show at Emerson, where Finley will be an artist-in-residence this month.

On hand for the exhibition's recent opening at the Huret and Spector Gallery, Finley looked nothing like the rabble-rousing, leftist extremist you might imagine. Tall and fit with a lustrous mane of red hair, snug leather pants, and a low-cut black sweater, the 50-year - old artist appeared more suburban chic than downtown avant-garde. For the past six years, she has been a professor of art and public policy at New York University.

"I'm interested in the artist as a recorder and reporter of our time," says Finley, who grew up in Chicago, earned her masters of fine arts from the San Francisco Art Institute, and established herself as a performance artist in New York's East Village during its creatively volcanic heyday in the 1980s. What she creates is a darkly comic, surrealistic melange of real-world history and unbridled personal fantasy.

Finley reflects back on her notoriety with mixed feelings. "I was surprised by what happened," she says. "I knew what I was doing was provocative, but I didn't think it was that provocative."

For a time, she says, she felt angry about how the NEA controversy and the lawsuit interrupted her career and consumed so much of her creative energy. "I had a career going before the lawsuit, and I was bitter that it couldn't take its course like those of artists like Eric Bogosian and Cindy Sherman," she says.

She went into psychoanalysis for seven years to sort out her feelings about what happened in the '90s, she explains. But she has continued to evolve as an artist, and if the performances she does today are less aggressively transgressive than her earlier efforts (nudity, chocolate sauce, and yams are no longer in her repertoire), her commitment to making work that challenges mainstream attitudes remains as fierce as ever.

Emerson gallery director Robert Fleming says he's admired Finley's work since he first saw her perform at the Institute of Contemporary Art in the mid-'80s. Did he have any trepidation about inviting such a potentially incendiary artist to exhibit? "I knew that if she did anything controversial it would be for a good reason," he says. "She doesn't do things just to shock, and I took the risk because I knew it would be something great for our students and our community."

Bill Arning, curator at MIT's List Visual Arts Center, is another ardent Finley supporter. "She looks for those areas in culture where we have a collective denial, and she makes them apparent so we have to deal with them," he says by phone. "Having watched the feeding frenzy at the Armory Show [the giant New York art fair] this weekend, I am hoping for a new wave of art students making politically engaged, non-commodifiable art. They could not find a better role model for that than Karen Finley." Plus, opines Arning, "She makes really beautiful drawings."

The works in "Nation Building" all focus with ferociously satiric intent on the Bush administration and its war in Iraq. Static gallery art is not Finley's strong suit; it lacks the kind of visceral, horrifying, and hilarious impact, not to mention originality, that her early performances had. But the show at Emerson nevertheless gives a good sense of how she thinks and what she thinks about.

One series of drawings consists of pages purporting to be from a dream journal kept by Laura Bush. With sketchy illustrations and scrawled writing they record, for example, a dream about Jodie Foster rounding up Iraqi insurgents and another in which Laura sees her husband's face superimposed on one of Anna Nicole Smith's breasts. Also, there's a letter from Laura to her husband insisting that he seek help for depression. It reads in part, "You have destroyed the trust of the nation, but do you have to destroy us, too?" Other pages from the dream journal are inappropriate for description in the newspaper.

Another set of drawings focuses on the hair, eyes, and boots of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice . The series culminates in a photo mural that shows a Stealth bomber dropping not bombs but Rice's large, knowing eyes, which are copied from Finley's drawings. It's titled "My Eyes Have Seen the Glory," referring not only to the song but to the final words of Martin Luther King Jr.'s last speech.

If it seems trivializing to focus on the hair, eyes, and footwear of such an important person, that is partly the point: Women are identified with their bodies in a way that men are not, and that, for an old-school feminist like Finley, is a big issue. "It's about how we look at the female body and at the black female body," she explains.

And it's about power. A drawing that riffs on Rice's footwear made on conjoined sheets of black sandpaper is pointedly titled "Dressed to Kill."

During a tour of the exhibition, Finley observes that Rice is an African-American woman who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., in the '50s and '60s -- the time and place of some of our nation's most violent civil rights struggles. Her ascension to a position of near-supreme power in the world, Finley asserts, is a terrible irony, considering where she came from and on whose behalf she now wields that power.

The goal, says the artist, is "not to answer questions but to raise questions about what has not been resolved in the American psyche." The power of Finley's art comes from her willingness to talk about things that most people are reluctant to discuss. Often this means bringing up ideas and fantasies that would seem, by conventional lights, too silly, embarrassing, dangerous, or vulgar to discuss. Call it shock therapy.

Finley's mix of journalism and psychic symbolism is dramatically realized in the current show -- albeit with a rather heavy hand -- in a tangled web of heavy ropes fashioned into hangman's nooses that dangles from the gallery's second - floor ceiling past the stairs to the first floor. Finley explains that she was thinking not only about the execution of Saddam Hussein but about the practice of lynching in American history. When she saw newspaper photographs of Saddam's execution, she said, "I thought, I've seen this before."

What might seem the exhibition's most straightforwardly political work is "Business as Usual," an installation in a small room on the gallery's second floor consisting of two computers and two printers on ordinary folding tables. Scrolling on the computer screens and coming out on paper from the printers are lists of Iraq war casualties derived from regularly updated websites. One shows Iraqi deaths, the other American.

The point is in the contrast between the tragedy of all those deaths and the clean, clinical setting in which the information is conveyed. "It's business as usual," says Finley. "You're not seeing the bodies in the caskets." Which, in a way, sums up her whole enterprise: She wants to uncover what America's collective consciousness tries to hide, and she'll do whatever it takes to accomplish her mission.

Ken Johnson can be reached at kejohnson@globe.com.

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