Karen Finley: Venus in Retrograde

UMBC’s Department of Visual Arts presents Venus in Retrograde by celebrated performance artist Karen Finley. The performance examines loss of love, dignity, and humanity, and issues a call to beat back with an exquisite heart. Against a backdrop of film projections, Finley narrates a poetic call to action in resistance to today’s times. The performance is in two parts. In Part One, Grabbing Pussy, Finley considers embodiment and the invasion of the self, featuring selections from her provocative recent book of the same name. In Part Two, Parts Known — the political is personal, the personal is political — she examines the price and pain of personal tragedy amidst a political landscape of psychic dimensions.

In Grabbing Pussy, against a sequence of opening floral abstractions, Finley offers a breathless cascade of a poetic narrative that lays bare the psychosexual obsessions that have burst to the surface of today’s American politics. With a biting engagement that alternates between laughter and rage, at times both shocking and disturbing, the performance illustrates the psychic splitting of consciousness. Finley examines not only the twisted Shakespearean dynamics that arise when libidos and loyalties clash, but also the cruelties and trauma of navigating personal agency amidst the torrents of assault disguised, openly, as authority played out publicly and privately through aggressions of public policy on the parts of figures like Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, and others. The aggression of intimacy, the disparity of gender, the escalation of white nationalist supremacy, are expressed through Finley’s raucous candor.

In Parts Known, Finley responds to the horrific separation of families at the border and the psychic trauma of people kept in cages and children left behind, amidst backgrounds of celebrity suicides such as Anthony Bourdain’s and Kate Spade’s and the children they left. These celebrity crisis events act as transference of despair within white neoliberalism, occupying a space for entitled victimization far from the real issues. Honoring the struggle and strength of resistance of past and current cultural movements can inspire us to not be disempowered. For we carry a wisdom and grace of how to move forward with the experience of the activism of the past. In particular, Finley will of course embody the recent verbal attacks on Baltimore and call upon the inspiration of Baltimore’s great legacy of resistance.

Both works, under the title Venus in Retrograde, expand on Finley’s career-long pursuit of performativley articulating the injustices committed by the U.S. government and society at large — an undertaking spanning her commentary on the rise of HIV and AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s (We Keep Our Victims Ready), her acting as plaintiff in the National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley after the NEA vetoed her grant in 1990, her criticism of homophobia (Written in Sand), and her work in the areas of reproductive rights, anti-war actions, and public memorials. These narratives, and many more across her body of work, position underrepresented voices and struggles as an always central component to her practice — a commitment as crucial as ever in today’s precarious political landscape.

Karen Finley is a performer, artist, writer, musician, poet, teacher and lecturer, and recipient of two Obies, two Bessies, a Guggenheim, and multiple grants from the NEA and NYSCA. In 1990, Finley became an unwilling symbol for the NEA when she, along with Tim Miller, Holly Hughes, and John Fleck, sued the NEA for withdrawing grants on the grounds of indecency. The controversial case went all the way to the Supreme Court. She has toured and exhibited internationally, published eight books, and her art is in the collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, among other places. Finley is a professor in the department of Art and Public Policy at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.

The performance will be immediately followed by a Q&A discussion with the artist; then a book signing and reception.


General Admission / Seniors: $10; free ticket reservation online with UMBC ID (current students, faculty, staff.)  Reserve your ticket now >>

Additional events during Karen Finley’s week in residence at UMBC, free and open to the public:

Baltimore Psychic Portraits
Finley’s portraits of of historically influential Baltimoreans
Wednesday, September 4 through Friday, September 6
Hallway Gallery, 1st Floor of Fine Arts Building 

Enter Enchantment: Collaboration, Participation, Activation
UMBC students present results from workshop experiments with Finley
Friday, September 6, 2019, 12:30 p.m.
Joseph Beuys Sculpture Park

Plan Your Visit

UMBC is located about 10 minutes south of the Inner Harbor along I-95.

The Fine Arts Recital Hall is located in the Fine Arts Building.

Free parking for the event can be found in Lot 8, across from the Performing Arts and Humanities Building.

Top photo: Karen Finley at Laurie Beechman Theater NYC, photo by Lori E. Seid; lower photo at ISSUE Project Room, photo by Cameron Kelly courtesy of the ISSUE Project Room.

Presented by the Department of Visual Arts, with generous support from the Departments of American Studies; English; Gender, Women’s + Sexuality Studies; History; Media & Communication Studies; Theatre, and from the Center for Art, Design & Visual Culture (CADVC); Center for Innovation, Research, and Creativity in the Arts (CIRCA); Dresher Center for the Humanities; Imaging Research Center (IRC); and the Dean’s Office of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences.


Start Date: Thursday, September 5, 2019
Start Time: 7:00 pm

End Date:
End Time:

Department Represented:

Venue Name: Fine Arts Recital Hall

Open Year Round:

CTA Text: Get tickets
CTA Link: https://umbctickets.universitytickets.com/w/event.aspx?id=2031&r=9d3c2c678c1047ed9c8ad10834e6f132

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