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She's Back 

Performance artist Karen Finley, that "chocolate smeared woman," is back in S.F.

Wednesday, Jan 15 2003
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Free speech icon and performance artist Karen Finley knows how to make an impression. The last time I saw the San Francisco Art Institute alumna (in her one-woman show Shut Up and Love Me), she was naked, covered in honey, and writhing on the floor. While she's not quite a household name -- few performance artists are -- many heard of Finley when her outrageous antics (which included coating her nude body with chocolate and yams and painting with her breast milk) landed her in hot water with the National Endowment for the Arts. As one of the NEA Four, a group of artists attacked by right-wingers -- retired Sen. Jesse Helms, in particular -- who found their work too obscene for public funding, Finley made headlines in the early '90s; she took her battle all the way to the Supreme Court -- and lost. Though she's known primarily as the "chocolate-smeared woman," Finley has always produced work that's more about baring her soul than her body. Her willingness to let it all hang out, so to speak, is what made her a natural for dealing with the emotional fallout of Sept. 11, which she addresses in her new show, The Distribution of Empathy.

Back east, Finley taught a class at New York University on turning tragedy into art and led group therapy-style tours of the WTC site, so she's prepared to examine how people cope with disasters and suffering. But don't come expecting a weepy memorial. In Empathy, irony is alive and well. Staged as a cheesy lounge act, complete with food and drink service, Finley's droll take on such a grave matter will certainly irk some folks (even those familiar with her risqué work), but that shouldn't stop her. The risk of offending her audience is standard for Finley. A piano player tickles the ivories in the background while Finley badgers her audience members for their recollections of that tragic day and cracks crude bin Laden jokes in the manner of a bad Las Vegas host. Her victuals have stomach-churning names like "Dead Man Fingers" and "Ground Zero Hero," but she tempers the black humor with tales of personal woe (told in poetic rants) that touch on her unresolved childhood conflicts, her affair with writer Charles Bukowski, and her pregnancy with his child.

While the show deals specifically with how New Yorkers processed their painful emotions, it also tackles broader themes of pain and loss while addressing the state of national mourning that swept the country. Finley borders on bad taste in Empathy, but she doesn't make light of the catastrophe. Rather, she uses wit to challenge the absurdity of a world in which a tragedy like Sept. 11 could happen in the first place. It should be interesting to see how she changes in the next decade now that her archnemesis Helms is out of the picture.

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Lisa Hom

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Slideshows

  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

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