The last time Karen Finley performed in the Valley, she used a teddy bear to sponge her torso with raw eggs before sprinkling herself with multicolored glitter. The time before that, she slathered canned yams onto her bare butt and used shredded beets as a gruesome metaphor for menstrual discharge. Both times, the nation's best-known performance artist shrieked, moaned and sobbed with evangelical fervor, spouting hair-raising prose about incest, rape and bodily functions.

Finley enthralled those Phoenix crowds at CRASHarts' former location on South Seventh Street. This time out, on April 13, she's appearing at a somewhat more mainstream venue: Arizona State University's Gammage Auditorium.

Over the past fifteen years, Finley has stunned audiences across the nation and Europe with her bravura. But she only recently became both a national cultural figure and an unwilling symbol of "obscenity" after conservative political pundits Rowland Evans and Robert Novak disdainfully characterized her as "a nude, chocolate-smeared woman." Her notoriety led to the loss of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

As a result, Finley and a growing movement of outraged artists are lobbying against restrictive arts legislation promoted by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms and others.

Speaking to New Times from a Philadelphia hotel room, Finley says she's excited about returning to Arizona.

"You know, I just love following Grand Hotel at Gammage," she says. "I love the radicalness of the setting; I like that kind of humor. And it's always nice to play in a real theatre, where you know people will definitely take a shower before they come. And I'd like to get to some of these ASU students. Maybe I can affect them into thinking in a different way. To me, that's worth it."

Finley canceled a student-sponsored ASU appearance in January, she says, because "the students weren't prepared to see me perform. I had some problems with the security preparations."

But now, armed with an official invitation from ASU's Institute for Studies in the Arts, Finley plans to enact her controversial piece We Keep Our Victims Ready this Saturday at Gammage. The move to such a large and "respectable" venue doesn't mean she's selling out. "I've been performing at universities since 1979," says Finley, who also has played New York's Lincoln Center.

She speaks glowingly of her former hosts, CRASH proprietors David Therrien and Helen Hestenes, as "really radical," and also likes the work of Phoenix artist Jane Smith, who's known for incorporating taxidermy and mummified road kill into her sculptures and furniture designs. "I'm sure that Jane is an artist they'd love to go after," Finley says of the nation's censors. "I wouldn't be surprised if she's on Jesse Helms' hit list already."

By an interesting quirk, the original Bill of Rights will be on display at Phoenix Civic Plaza during Finley's stay. "This is weird," she exclaims when told of the coincidence. "That thing's really following me! I was just in San Francisco, and it came right after I was there!"

But Finley won't pose for a photograph with the historic document. "I'm not against the Bill of Rights, of course," she says, "but I am against the sponsor of the Bill of Rights tour. It's the Philip Morris company. They're the largest corporate supporter of Jesse Helms."

Helms, says Finley, is "one of my largest enemies. He is very much against the Bill of Rights, and against freedom of expression. And I believe the Philip Morris company's only reason for doing this is that they're interested in the `freedom of expression' to be able to advertise smoking."

If she found herself alone in an elevator with Helms, what would she say to him? "I would just ignore him," Finley says. "I really feel that he's an evil person. I don't feel I'd need to say anything to him. I think I'm saying enough with my work."

Finley pauses, then adds, "I would like to perform in North Carolina, though.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robert X. Planet