The Jackie Look
nytheatre.com review by David Johnston
January 30, 2010
The coolly imperious Jackie Kennedy stands in front of us at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, leading us on a web tour of the Texas Book Depository website. (She explains that jfk.org was taken by the Book Depository Museum. The library had to settle for jfklibrary.org. Another thing, she tells us from behind her elegant sunglasses, that she's had to "let go.") In her high and whispery voice, she takes us through the infamous Zapruder film, with its graphic color depiction of JFK's shot to the head. Then she leads us to the Gift Shop section of the site, with its commemorative spoons of Kennedy's head, Dealey Plaza Christmas gift ornaments, and "tasteful" authorized replicas of the limousine. ("Well, I'm glad it's tasteful!," Jackie chirps.)
As is frequently the case with performance artist Karen Finley, the above description could easily sound like a deliberate provocation, an assault on taste and tender sensibilities. But Finley is too much of a humanist for that. She's a deeply empathic artist, and in the chilly, mournful Karen Finley: The Jackie Look, she tries to rescue Jackie the woman from her prison of image and cool.
With a series of evocative images projected behind her—JFK in the White House with John John, Warhol's Marilyn, Andre Serrano's "Piss Christ," Jackie wearing the dress—Finley leads us through her own private tour of Jackie The Blank Slate and the traumas that America projected on her. To Finley, Jackie seems a woman who suffered for all our sins, who took on all the grief we couldn't express. She unearths "Jackie kitsch," like a book of astrological charts for the people around her, such as Sirhan Sirhan. The scope moves wider, as she looks at the nature of assassination, celebrity, Michelle Obama and the media's obsession with her sleeveless arms and "casualness." She discourses on images, feminism, semiotics, and unabashedly left-wing politics. Finley is always associative, never linear, and being led down the twists and turns of her mind is one of the great pleasures of seeing her perform. You may like her or not, you may like this kind of "performance art" or not, but at some point, she'll make a connection you've never seen, a connection that seems so obvious you wonder why you never saw it.
Finley is an artist, our poet of trauma. Indeed, the word "trauma" is repeated over and over in the show. The question is—why is Finley, an artist known for rage and exhibition, channeling Jackie Kennedy, the pin-up girl for emotional repression? There are only glimpses of her bitter, mordant humor in The Jackie Look. Some sections feel academic, as if her connection with Jackie is—at this stage—more intellectually curious than visceral. Some parts feel as if she's circling around her ideas, which have yet to come into sharper focus. No matter. She's even interesting down a blind alley. And late in the show, when she summons up that Finley-esque shamanistic chant, repeating phrases in a sobbing cadence until they take on a terrifying newness, we see again why Finley matters, why she's indispensable.