Jackie O via Karen Finley: The Jackie Look Review
If “The Jackie Look” looks to be a parody of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the embodiment of American grace, by Karen Finley — wasn’t she the performance artist who smeared her breasts with chocolate? – it’s best to look again…and then a third time.
There are dozens of pictures of Jackie O to look at in this one-woman show that is being presented Saturday nights through March 6th at the Laurie Beechman Theater, a cabaret-like atmosphere in the basement of the West Bank Cafe. Before Finley even makes her appearance, the images are projected again and again onto the back of the stage — a slide show labeled “Life of A Glamour Girl,” that follows Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy from youthful equestrian to triumphant debutante to inquiring photographer to young bride to young mother to First Lady to young widow, and then on to Jackie O, “the most photographed woman in the world in modern times,” as Finley explains when she makes her entrance. She wears a pantsuit with pearls, slightly tilting coiffure, and those signature Gucci sunglasses, and speaks in an exaggerated girlish voice that was first lampooned in the once-famous Vaughn Meader First Family albums.
This is supposed to be the beginning of a lecture, delivered in Dallas in the present day (16 years after the unmentioned actual death of the real-life Jackie O), offering Susan Sontag-like erudite reflections on being photographed and “my contributions to the field of stylizing trauma.”
Abruptly, though, she interrupts herself, and brings us through what feels like an impromptu 20-minute tour of the actual Web site for The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza (www.jfk.org); we’re shown the Zapruder assassination film and the tackiest of the museum’s “collectibles.” The museum is, of course, in Dallas, Texas — “I’d like to remind you that’s where Neiman Marcus started,” Finley-as-Jackie O says — in the location from which Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK, once called the Sixth Floor Book Depository. “And I’m very fond of books,” she adds, both remarks inspiring a smattering of uncertain laughter among audience members making their way through their drinks and fried calamari.
She comes back to the lectern, and suddenly her tone changes, ratchets up to a rant.
It was only shortly after this shift, close to halfway through the 75 or so minutes of Karen Finley’s performance, that I finally started to put into focus what I thought of “The Jackie Look.” As difficult, awkward, messy, tedious, unclear, tasteless, loud, borderline offensive or just silly as I found it at times, “The Jackie Look” became for me an exciting, moving, even brilliant piece of theater. That I felt forced to work through these rapidly vacillating reactions is precisely what made it worthwhile. This is no chronological bio-play offering digestible tidbits of a stage-adapted life. This is an indigestible screed, a meditation, a discourse, a poem jumping back and forth in tone and time, a work that requires your intellectual and emotional engagement.
Jackie talks of watching Michelle Obama at the inauguration in the company of Martin Luther King Jr.’s (dead) widow Coretta; she riffs on the significance of Michelle’s bare arms; she offers an academic-sounding analysis of how photography helps deal with trauma; most memorably, she defends and analyzes and dramatizes Caroline Kennedy’s utterance of “you knows,” which were “counted like Imelda Marcos’s shoes” and “demystified” her.
“The Jackie Look,” it becomes clear, is not just about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s image, the “look” that so influenced fashion and art. It is about her gaze at us, and our regard for her. “I was your art,” Karen Finley says to us as Jackie. “Life is more important than art. But life is meaningless without art.” You may never have heard those stories about Karen Finley and various foodstuffs, her attack by Senator Jesse Helms for being indecent, her elevation to first amendment martyr. All you need to know is that she’s an artist.
Jonathan Mandell can be followed on Twitter: New York Theater
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