In 1998, Ms. magazine named her a woman of the year; a year later, she posed for Playboy.
Karen Finley is still, however, best known as one of the NEA Four, specifically as the lead plaintiff in the 1998 Supreme Court case challenging the National Endowment for the Arts' "general standards of decency."
"No longer a fashionably angry '90s woman," as she has written, Finley has always been more comfortable with her art than with being "the anti-censorship queen." But now at age 45, the mother of a 7-year-old daughter, she is also "comfortable [being] conflicted about certain issues."
Reached at her home in Westchester County, N.Y., Finley has so much to say - about everything from the aftermath of what she calls "my NEA crisis" to her latest performance piece, "Shut Up and Love Me" - that she rarely finishes one sentence before launching into the next.
"Shut Up and Love Me," which opens at the Theatre Project April 5, embodies "the on-the-road concept of seeking artistic freedom," in the tradition of Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg, Finley explains. It's a concept she feels women have not been allowed to enjoy as fully as men.
The protagonist of her latest one-woman show, she continues, "is going from one kind of dysfunctional relationship to another and she's complicit with it, but she has joy. There are the emotions, but there is no blame, and that I consider to be post-post feminist."
Then there's the honey. Food became a staple in Finley's work early on when she couldn't afford props and took to using whatever she could scrounge. In a piece about a drug addict who abused his grandmother on Thanksgiving, she poured a can of yams down her nude backside, and most famously, in "We Keep Our Victims Ready," she smeared her body with chocolate to symbolize her belief that women are often treated as excrement.
But with the exception of what she describes as her 1998 deconstruction of that piece, titled "The Return of the Chocolate-Smeared Woman," Finley says she hadn't used food as a prop for a decade." Then Tom Patchett, co-creator of the TV series "ALF" and owner of a California art gallery, invited her to do a reading from her 1999 book, "Pooh Unplugged."
"I was thinking about what were some of the aspects within `Winnie the Pooh,' and of course honey came out, and I started thinking about posing like the animals," she says. "I would dance as the animals, posing in honey."
In "Shut Up and Love Me," the honey takes on broader connotations: "a term of endearment; then honey, the sexual secretion is referred to as the honey; then the Bible, the religious aspect, milk and honey, and the apple dipped in honey during the High Holidays; then I liked the worker bees making honey."
In addition to this broad-ranging symbolism, Finley says, "There's an extraordinary amount of endorphin release in this piece. It's very, very funny. People aren't aware of my grand use of humor."
Finley credits John Waters with restoring her sense of humor after her legal ordeal (the Supreme Court ultimately ruled against the plaintiffs). She was performing her Obie Award-winning piece, "The American Chestnut," in Atlanta when she was invited to a gallery where some of Waters' photographs were being exhibited as part of an AIDS benefit. One photo (with a whimsical but unprintable title) made a particularly strong impression. "I was in shock because I was always carrying a serious attitude toward an AIDS benefit, and I looked at this piece and I laughed and enjoyed it so much," she recalls.
That night she attended a dinner party for Waters. "I enjoyed myself, and the next day I was different. It had been coming slowly," she says. "I've always had a good sense of humor, but it became crackling and vicious without politics."
Waters' photo, Finley says, will be included in her next book, "Aroused," which she describes as "an anthology of erotica, sexual culture, fantasies, the best of lesbian erotica," and which will also feature the work of such contributors as playwright Wallace Shawn, "Clueless" writer-director Amy Heckerling, actress Rosanna Arquette and, Finley hopes, the rest of the NEA Four, John Fleck, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller.
Her most recent book, "A Different Kind of Intimacy," published last fall, combines a memoir with excerpts from past writings and performance pieces. She has also completed the screenplay for a movie that shares the title "Shut Up and Love Me." But while one scene from the screenplay is included in the stage show, she says the movie will be quite different. "It's a screwball comedy about a woman who realizes all her relationships are based on her father, and so she goes out trying to court her father."
Although more than a few detractors have felt Finley's work goes too far, her late mother believed it didn't go far enough. "She died a year ago. I'd just written `Shut Up and Love Me,' but she never saw it," Finley says. "I think she would like this piece."