Tender Loving Karen

Some artists like to play coy about the underlying themes in their work. You know the sort of thing -- the interviewer asks, "Did you have any deeper meanings in mind in the scene of the big wheat silo with the twin haystacks at the base and the farmgirl straddling it at the top?" and the writer or director or whatever chuckles and shakes his or her head and says, "Aw, gee, no, I never thought of it that way, I was just, y'know, trying to tell my story . . ."

Karen Finley is not one of these artists. Ask the writer, actress and performance artist what her new show Shut Up and Love Me, which she performs in Phoenix Saturday night -- her first Arizona appearance in 13 years -- is about, and her initial response is simple: "Sex." But within seconds, she's using phrases that are normally the province of the critic. "It's about deconstructing the Oedipal/Electra complex," she says, by phone from San Diego. "It's rambunctious and psychologically scathing, and it's also wickedly funny."

Finley became famous/notorious when she was lucky enough to get the likes of George Bush and Jesse Helms as press agents. Finley had her funding from the National Endowment for the Arts cut in 1990 when her one-woman piece We Keep Our Victims Ready, along with the works of Holly Hughes, Tim Miller and John Fleck, was deemed obscene by those esteemed critics in the U.S. Congress; the quartet has since become legendary as the "NEA Four." As the "chocolate-smeared woman," she probably attained more notoriety than any of her fellows, and is still likely the best-known performance artist in the country, at least outside of performance-art circles.

The experience hasn't tamed Finley, who has since acted in such films as Philadelphia and appeared frequently on Politically Incorrect. She describes a scene in Shut Up and Love Me in which "I pull on my breasts like I'm milking a cow, and go into the audience like I'm doing a lap dance. It's post-post-feminist, because there's no victim, there's no blame. I do a nude ballet. It's very beautiful and sensual. My earlier work was about oppression, that was the politic. But that's no longer the agenda."

While she's in town for the show, Finley will also be appearing Friday night at Changing Hands Bookstore to sign her new tome A Different Kind of Intimacy (Thunder's Mouth Press). It's a collection of her works, ranging from short stories and articles to the texts of some of her performances pieces. The title refers, in part, to "My realization that I was in a sexually abusive relationship with Jesse Helms."