Literature Program

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 — Saturday, July 17, 2010 at 8:00 p.m.

$23 general / $18 Hallwalls members

To learn more about the benefits of becoming a member, please click here.

Karen Finley

The Jackie Look

photo credit: Ron Lasko
Special Bastille Day "Jacqueline Bouvier" benefit performance with private, French-themed reception with the artist on July 14
$50 general / $35 Hallwalls members

Tickets now available online

More Than That — Thomas Dooney's cover story in Artvoice, 7/15/10

Karen Finley brings 'The Jackie Look' to Hallwalls — Colin Dabkowski's interview with Karen Finley on his ArtsBeat blog at

Karen Finley: An extended conversation — WBFO's Joyce Kryszak talks to Karen Finley and Hallwalls Executive Director Edmund Cardoni about The Jackie Look and about censorship in the arts.

"... so shocking and so powerful... "
(Hilton Als, The New Yorker, February 15 & 22, 2010)
"... emotionally charged ... punctuated with shocks of sharp insight"
(Ben Brantley, New York Times, April 22, 2010)

After a critically-acclaimed and twice-extended three-month Off-Broadway run at the Laurie Beechman Theatre on 42nd Street in NYC, Karen Finley brings her latest performance, The Jackie Look, to Hallwalls Cinema in Buffalo for 4 performances, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, July 14, 15, 16, & 17, at 8:00 p.m.

In The Jackie Look, Finley speaks and appears as Jackie Kennedy—arguably the most photographed woman of her time—looking back (as if from the dead) from the vantage point of 2010 at her own iconic image as constructed in pictures, using the opportunity to work through the nation's historical trauma as captured in such images, in hope of tapping the transformative power of new images to envision a more promising future. As in several other recent works, Finley occupies a public figure to reveal a national narrative. The Jackie Look stages the normally dry and didactic lecture format as an eruptive site of psychically raw performance, this time taking inspiration not only from the long-gone 1960s Camelot era but from the recent, at first equally hopeful arrival of the Obama family at the White House, an occasion for the release of haunting past images of past events into the possibility of hope and reconciliation. Finally, Finley as Jackie plumbs our present-day obsession with the very different (but no less compelling) image of Michelle Obama, including the deeper meaning underlying our fascination with her physicality (bare shoulders, muscular arms, etc.) Memory and projection, gender and race, power and helplessness, legacy and reflection, courage and faith are just some of the larger themes of this powerful and emotional one-woman performance.

Karen Finley has been a frequent visitor to Hallwalls, from the performance she credits as her national professional debut in our 700 Main Street gallery in 1982 to several performances in our Black 'n' Blue Theatre at Tri-Main Center (1996, 2001, & 2002) to her Babeville debut in June 2008, with her new performance about Eliot and Silda Spitzer, Impulse to Suck: The performance of the apology and the separation of sex and state. In April of that same year (2008), Finley had received the Edwin Booth Award from the Doctoral Theatre Students Association of CUNY, an award established in 1983 "to honor a person, organization, or company in recognition of their outstanding contribution to the New York City/American Theatre and Performance Community." Named after the 19th-century actor who was also renowned for his intellect, the award promotes integration of the professional and academic theatre communities. Distinguished past honorees included Paula Vogel ('05), Tony Kushner ('02), Richard Foreman ('97), Arthur Miller ('92), Joseph Papp ('89), Ellen Stewart ('84), and The Royal Shakespeare Company ('83).

photo credit: Richard Termine

Karen Finley is a New York based artist whose raw and transgressive performances have long provoked controversy and debate. She has exhibited her visual art, performances, and plays all over the world. Besides Hallwalls, her performances have been presented at Lincoln Center, The Guthrie in Minneapolis, American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, The ICA in London, Steppenwolf in Chicago, and The Bobino in Paris, among countless others. Her artworks are in numerous collections and museums including the Centre Pompidou in Paris and LA MOCA. Finley attended the San Francisco Art Institute, receiving an MFA and, later, an honorary Ph.D. She has received numerous awards and fellowships including a Guggenheim, two OBIES, two Bessies, MS. magazine Woman of the Year, NARAL Person of the Year (which she shared with Anna Quindlen & Walter Cronkite), and grants from NYSCA and the NEA. Finley was one of four artists whose NEA awards were vetoed due to content considered "indecent." Finley and the other three artists sued for reinstatement and won the case in 1993 in the ninth circuit court in Los Angeles. The favorable ruling was appealed by the Clinton Justice Department and ultimately overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1998, in a decision that threatened to allow the government to place restrictions on arts funding based on “decency standards.” She has been on television, radio, print and electronic media for her opinions and reflections on contemporary culture, including as a contributor to Huffington Post. In 2007 Finley created an installation, Nation Building, which explored America's history of racism and violence as a repeated theme in America's occupation and war in Iraq. She currently is a Professor of Art and Public Policy at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.


"Karen Finley's rambling, emotionally charged performance...explores the style of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and why the world cares so much about it. Though messy and meandering, it's punctuated with shocks of sharp insight." — Ben Brantley, New York Times (click here to read full review)

from The Way of Her Flesh: Laura Linney and Karen Finley show the public life of women.
by Hilton Als, The New Yorker, February 15 & 22, 2010

... Most people would probably assume that Karen Finley...isn't much given to metaphor, but they'd be wrong. Finley...attacks her work like a writer of hieroglyphics. The messages she scrawls on the canvas of her self are about the social and sexual implications of being a woman. And she often uses famous characters as symbols to help her convey her ideas to the audience. (She knows that everyone is interested in celebrity.) Part of what makes her latest production, "The Jackie Look," in which she plays Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—woman as political martyr—so shocking and so powerful is the way in which Finley dips in and out of a naturalistic presentation. If Finley plays the First Lady somewhat realistically—at least, at first—it's only in order to draw us into the heightened theatrics of tragedy, the absurdity, and the psychic pain to which she is about to expose us....

After a while, in a whispery voice, Finley, as Jackie, gives us a PowerPoint presentation of, the Web site of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. Dealey Plaza, of course, was the scene of John F. Kennedy's assassination, and the exhibits on display—including footage of Jackie scrambling to get out of the line of fire—are so ghastly that you want to turn away, but Finley won't let you. In her sweet, reasonable voice, Jackie tells us that she stayed away from the creation of the Web site, because she had other matters of the Kennedy legacy to control. Given how upset she is by the site, she adds, "I'm sure the National Endowment for the Arts has been involved in this museum." The audience laughs, remembering that, in 1990, Finley was one of the "N.E.A. Four," controversial artists whose National Endowment grants were rescinded after they were denounced on the Senate floor by the Republican Jesse Helms. This is one of the few laughs the audience can muster. As the show becomes more intense, we become more nervous, both wanting and not wanting to see what Finley will do next....

This horror movie about women living public lives is especially devastating because it's all true. "You know, you know, you know," Finley says over and over, tears flowing behind her impeccable sunglasses, not a hair out of place. And as we both recoil from and ride her ferocious words, her body somehow manages to become a part of our own, despite all our differences.

Review by Justin D. Quackenbush, New York Cool:
It's an utterly miserable Saturday the evening I attend The Jackie Look, Karen Finley's newest offering at the Laurie Beechman Theatre [on 42nd St.]. Outside is a drenching squall, the kind that impedes the MTA from any kind of function. The gales are gusting, the gutters are gushing, and the audience trickles in. This affords me much time to sit back and survey the room, and I find myself questioning this little gem of an Off-Broadway theater as a venue for Finley's work. The space almost feels too pretty and refined to house the queen of performance art, and there are certain patrons who seem as out of place at the cabaret tables. Near me there is a pair of young men dressed identically in Kelly green corduroys, Necco Wafer-toned argyle sweater vests and orange bandanas tied as ascots. It's extreme, but it's a style.

Then it occurs to me: I'm about to watch a piece on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who is just that: an iconic symbol of style and refinement. So maybe, I decide, Finley and her posse do belong here. As I sit and absorb the ambiance, I become aware of something else. I am likely the youngest person in attendance and I am suddenly nervous that I may be at a severe disadvantage for understanding this piece. I know little of the queen of performance art (other than that she is one of the NEA Four and that her material usually leaves her dripping in gallons of honey or melted chocolate) or for that matter Jackie O, other than what I've learned in history books. I'm nervous that I may not relate to the artist or her subject, as I have little to no personal connection to their obvious cultural contributions.

I'm happy to report that Ms. Finley leaps gracefully over both of these hurdles and manages to entertain, educate, and unnerve the room in a way that few can. The piece begins with a digital slide show of Jackie through the years-as Bouvier, Kennedy, and Onassis-and the stills are slyly juxtaposed with an underscore of Fergie's "Glamorous" and Britney Spears' "Piece of Me." Upon her entrance, Finley—looking stunning and timeless in white pants, the trademark 3/4-sleeved blazer, and Gucci shades—interposes herself between Jackie's life in photos and her life on the stage. With a light and breathy voice, she announces that she'd like to give a talk on "The gazing or looking-at of Trauma."

Before launching into this lecture, Finley's Jackie gives us a preliminary glimpse into what she means by that. The home page for The Texas School Book Depository, which is now a museum, is projected on the screen behind her. She takes us on a tour of the site showing us the Abraham Zapruder film, photographs of the gun Oswald allegedly shot JFK with, and many more. Via Jackie's genteel scrutiny, Finley impressively compares and contrasts much of the collection with controversial works of art like Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ." She examines the photos and pontificates on how her public pain has been turned into a museum.

We even browse the gift store and are shown the various collectibles one can buy from the museum: a "tasteful" holiday ornament—on which she remarks "if this is tasteful then I don't want to see the ones that are not," a die-cast replica of the limousine they rode in on the day of the assassination, and a set of silver spoons with JFK's portrait on the handle. Of the spoons, she quips "I'm so happy that I don't have to put my husband's head in my mouth." She seems at once amused and miffed with these tacky trinkets and the clear disregard they represent toward a National Tragedy. It forces one to wonder what kind of objectification we will see at the 9/11 Memorial.

It's here, with her audience warm and her motive clearly defined that Finley finally lets us have it. She derails from the hitherto polite and organized train of thought and launches into a bold and alarming stream-of-consciousness diatribe on how photography provides organization of catastrophe and that life is more important than art but is meaningless without it. Moreover, that we benefit from photographs of traumatic events because we can see our emotional responses to a condition by contrasting our current emotional experience versus a past emotional memory time. Simply put, that images of suffering create a canvas for communal [grieving].

Retiring the honey, Finley's Jackie drips with sarcasm acknowledging her own contribution to the style of looking at trauma. She reflects on becoming a public grieving space by her demonstration of grace in public in lieu of shattering. As she reveals the tremendous damage this emotional baggage has cost her—"you wonder why I hide my eyes behind dark glasses"—her voice drops into the primal and you expect a flood of tears at any moment. Finley is a master at vocal manipulation and while her guttural utterances evoke a certain emotional strain, her action remains firmly disconnected from her sound. It's confusing and nearly a turn-off until we realize that through not showing her grief, this becomes part of her statement, as she is always on for the camera. We can hear her tears, but brilliantly, we never see them.

Instead, it's on to the next instance of style: "And now...let's watch...some Johnny Weir." Or—in a particularly moving, albeit startling, bit about the media attention surrounding Caroline Kennedy's use of the phrase "you know"—to discuss the scrutiny of powerful women. Finley makes the attempt to elucidate the phrase, as an utterance, was first used in the 1960s. She explains that Caroline's use is not, you know, unintelligent, but rather a reaching out to or an inclusive gesture to whom she is speaking. She posits that perhaps this sole-survivor of the Kennedy lineage isn't actually saying, "you know" at all. Rather she may be unconsciously pleading to be released from the indignities she's dealt with her entire life: "YOU...NO."

Beneath the mirage of Finley's blanket theme stews a mother lode of historical commentary and feminist insight through which she plows with dizzying urgency. It is not surprising that this piece has already enjoyed two extensions, as there is something here for everyone: the clinical psychologist culture-junkie, the socially conscious Jackie disciple, the parade of devoted Finley-philes, and yes, the anxious 27-year-old theater buff alike. Ms. Finley raises the bar for simple, captivating performance art and leaves one wanting more. Fortunately for us, with The Jackie Look, when it rains, it pours.

Ran January 30-April 24, 2010.

Some publications related to this event:
June, July and August, 2010 - 2010