woman wearing papier-mache rabbit ears is wrapped in gauze and suspended, along with a live rabbit, from a flagpole for 24 hours. The public is invited to Franklin Furnace, a downtown New York exhibition and performance space, to see this work about animal and human rights; after closing time, a video monitor in the front window keeps audiences apprised.

Another woman, performing a work about aging and femaleness and the earth at the Kitchen, projects enormous pictures of herself from birth to adulthood on the walls, moving forward and backward through time, and then writes her age -- 60 -- in lipstick on her shaven head.

A black artist turns off the lights to perform part of his work in total darkness.

Performance art, a form that coalesced in New York and California in the mid-'70s, borrows from movement and dance, theater, music, the visual arts and video. It can be scripted or extemporaneous, performed solo or with others, involve props and costumes or not. "There are no definitions of what is allowed -- it's wide open," says Martha Wilson, founder of Franklin Furnace, a New York incubator for many performance artists. "You can stand on a street corner or take a bath in a suitcase."

Performance art can be confrontational, phantasmagoric, threatening, emotional, bizarre. So perhaps it is not surprising, in the intensifying tumult over art and obscenity and the National Endowment for the Arts, that the first artists to be denied the 1990 NEA fellowships for which they'd been recommended were four performance artists, two from each coast.

The endowment's chairman and its appointed advisory board, the National Council on the Arts, last week took the very rare step of overruling the unanimous recommendation of its peer panel, awarding grants of $5,000 to $11,250 to 14 artists, but refusing them to Karen Finley and Holly Hughes of New York, and John Fleck of Los Angeles and Tim Miller of Santa Monica.

All are former NEA grant recipients. But their work involves elements that have lately drawn fire from NEA critics: sexuality (both homo- and hetero-); nontraditional views of religion; four-letter words; attacks on political and religious antagonists. On Capitol Hill, critics of the endowment, as well as some of those hoping to save it, generally applauded the withholding of the grants.

Performance artists may have been particularly vulnerable to political pressure on the NEA, say supporters like Mark Russell, director of New York's PS 122 art center. They work in a new, not widely understood medium, he said, and they work alone, without boards of directors, subscribers or organizations.

But the four "defunded" artists, in Holly Hughes's term, do have allies. Los Angeles performance artist Rachel Rosenthal publicly refused the $11,250 NEA grant she was given, saying in a statement that "I cannot in good conscience pay such an immoral price for this money." Producer Joe Papp sent a scathing letter to NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer, accusing him of becoming "Jesse Helms's enforcer, a censor, a role ill-befitting the leader of the arts in America." Finley and Hughes are appealing the denials of their grants and considering their legal options as well; Miller and Fleck say they are considering appeals. Grant recipients are discussing some sort of group response, to be announced this week at a press conference at the Public Theater in New York.

The performances, meanwhile, continue. "Rescinding these grants will make these artists' lives miserable," Wilson says, "but it won't stop the train."

Feminism, Mom and Monologues To find Holly Hughes, who turns out to be 35 and elfin and wearing a "Fight for Homoerotic Art" T-shirt, one climbs four flights of stairs, enters the standard bathtub-in-the-kitchen East Village railroad flat, shoos the cats off the chairs. "My posh pad, paid for by your tax dollars," she says by way of welcome.

She grew up in a very Republican family in Saginaw, Mich. ("the navy bean capital of the world") and came to New York in 1979 to become a famous feminist artist. "Those heady days," she says. "I thought I'd collectively arrange a giant quartz-and-steel vagina in Federal Plaza that would topple the military." When this did not, precisely, occur, she became a waitress and then, hanging around the W.O.W. Cafe, a performer.

Hughes's work, for which she received a $7,000 NEA grant last year, is satiric and cheeky, and it celebrates her lesbian sensibilities. That, she is convinced, was exactly the problem this year. "Three of the people who got defunded are very visible as performers and gay performers," she says. "I believe my grant got denied because Frohnmayer is trying to appease a right-wing minority, led by Jesse Helms, that has really attacked gays and lesbians."

Oddly enough, Hughes did receive a $15,500 NEA play-writing grant this year, recommended by a different peer panel. The scripts she submitted in support of that successful application were the same she submitted for the solo performance grant she was denied. In both cases, NEA observers came to see her perform her 75-minute solo theater piece, "World Without End," at Washington's d.c. space last December. (Hughes returns to Washington Aug. 25 and 26 to perform that and a new work at Dance Place.)

It's a monologue -- "storytelling," she calls it -- and consists "mostly of me sitting in a wingback chair in a red dress, talking about my mother," though there's also an accordion player on stage who, at one point, breaks into an abbreviated cabaret act in gibberish French. Written after her mother's death in 1987, "World Without End" attempts "to make sense of the very difficult relationship we had." It's also funny and full of anecdotes about "the development of our sexuality and questions about sexual identity."

The piece describes "a briefly enlightened moment" when her mother "explained the facts of life to me. ... I talk about her taking off her clothes and pointing out the points of interest between her legs." During this part of the monologue, "I sort of motion; I stick my hands under my dress at one point."

This moment may have decided Hughes's fate, though there's also plenty of unprintable language and some impious religious imagery ("I saw Jesus between my mother's legs!" she tells her best friend Jodeen) in the piece as well.

Without the solo-performance grant, which probably would have amounted to $5,000 to $10,000, "I have to get a job," Hughes says. But she intends to create new work nonetheless. The working title of an upcoming performance piece: "Fully Funded by the NEA."

Meanwhile, she's calling for Frohnmayer's resignation. "He's the Neville Chamberlain of arts funding," Hughes says. "And he's expecting me and Karen Finley to be Poland."

The Sacrifice Plan Of the four artists, Karen Finley may be the most distraught by the defunding and attendant hoopla. It seems to have changed everything for her. "I will always now be looked at as the censored artist, the blacklisted artist," she says by phone from her home in Rockland County, north of New York City. "I feel like I'm living under McCarthyism or Stalinism. I didn't think this would affect me so deeply, but it has." She has been unable to create new work, Finley says, since the notoriety over her performances began this spring.

A two-time NEA recipient, Finley is a 34-year-old Chicagoan whose work draws controversy like a magnet, and has for years. It's sometimes rude, crude and semi-nude. It's frankly feminist. It's angry. In "We Keep Our Victims Ready," which an NEA site observer saw this winter at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, "I basically go through various victims in our society, showing that people are born into victimization, {into} the patriarchal nature of the society," the artist says.

In the first act Finley, seated (fully clothed) in a rocking chair, tells of her Aunt Mandy, who died of an illegal abortion, and reflects on societal expectations of motherhood and on her unorthodox religious views.

In the second act, in which she rages against sexual violence and women's objectification, she removes part of her costume. "I go through a ceremony, the woman being degraded," she says. She covers her body with chocolate ("it's very primitive, you hear these words like 'Oh my God' ") and decorates it with candy and tinsel, reciting a text that compares her to a penned veal calf. "Is there anything at all sexually titillating? No. There's nothing sexually exciting about my work; if there were I'd be doing burlesque shows and centerfolds and making a lot of money."

In the third act, donning a white shroud and sitting at a bedside, she talks about AIDS and death. "At the end of this performance, people are in tears," she says.

Now she is afraid that the institutions that book her will be subject to funding pressure. The Kitchen and Franklin Furnace, downtown alternative art spaces with which she has long relationships, have been questioned by the General Accounting Office and say their NEA checks have been delayed.

She is afraid that the public will never consider her a serious artist after reading columnists' descriptions of her as one whose talent is smearing chocolate on her body. She's afraid she won't be able to work at all. "I'm calling it the sacrifice plan," she says. "I believe {Frohnmayer} thinks that by sacrificing us, he is saving the endowment."

But in a backhanded way, Finley thinks, her opponents' actions are a tribute to the success and power of her work, which she has performed across the country and in Europe. "It's about social issues they don't want to hear about," she says. "This is their last chance at trying to maintain the power structure of the straight white male."

Aristotelian Performances Not everyone finds Tim Miller's work so objectionable.

"My mother comes," he says with a chuckle. "She's a hard-core Republican. She's a big supporter."

Of course Frohnmayer, a fellow Republican, didn't share her enthusiasm, which her son describes as "humorous, built on American storytelling tradition -- you know, talking to the audience, telling stories. It's challenging politically and in some of the content."

The 31-year-old Miller, a third-generation Californian from Whittier who's been involved in theater and dance since high school, has been openly gay since then as well. "That's a big part of my work," he says, and he attributes the NEA's grant rejection to the fact that he deals so openly with gay and lesbian issues.

But what about those touchstones of controversy in art:

Does he use profanity? "Much less than Eddie Murphy," he replies.

Is he nude on stage? "Oh, only in a passing fashion," he says so casually it makes both him and a visitor laugh.

"Just to give you an example," he says more seriously, "in a work called 'Some Golden States,' there's one section right at the beginning of the piece where I sort of tear my clothes off and I'm basically kind of thrown around on a pile of leaves. It's a piece I made about the reality of my hometown, Whittier, being destroyed in the 1987 earthquake."

Much of Miller's artwork deals with his experiences as a gay man from Whittier. "I was from Nixon's hometown," he says. "It had a kind of energy to it. It's part of why I became an artist. It was part of a historical moment."

He wears a black T-shirt proclaiming the AIDS activist credo in Spanish -- SILENCIO = MUERTE -- and sits in the lofty space that houses Highways, a theater tucked into a quiet street in Santa Monica. Miller lives just south of here in Venice, and he volunteers at Highways, which on this day has become the scene of press conferences and interviews.

"The worst possible day to be going to a gig," says Miller ruefully as he rises once again to answer the phone. Like a theater gypsy, Miller is often on the road. He just returned from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and now he's headed for Seattle. He estimates that he makes, after expenses, about $13,000 a year from performing and teaching occasional classes at colleges in different cities.

What he does is art, he says. "I totally exist within the context of European-American tradition. My work is Aristotelian in form. It's structured. It's written in what is clearly an acknowledged literary form."

And, at the bottom line, his work is art -- "because I say it is." He laughs. "And because newspapers do."

Like any artist, he's accustomed to -- and accepts -- rejection. In the past eight years he's applied for more grants than he's won, although the NEA has awarded him four or five solo artist and choreography grants, he says. But this case has made him angry because of what he sees as the political nature of the turndown. "It's so clearly a rejection of individual artists for who they are," he says. "There's been plenty of straight white men who do challenging work."

Miller says the dramatically worded artist's statement he filed with his grant application -- "my call to arms" -- probably helped single him out for rejection.

"I am a mutant performance artist from Alta California," he wrote, using a politically charged term that characterizes the state as being stolen from Mexico. "I believe my social activism ... my sex juicy life ... provocateur organizing ... my space building ... and my family Sunday dinners in Whittier are as much a part of my creative work as my performances ..."

And, he added bluntly, "And look here, Senator Jesse Helms, keep your porky pig face out of the NEA and out of my {expletive}... because I got work to do ..."

Miller performs everywhere from art centers to high schools to a local church where he works with an openly gay Episcopal priest on "performance art sermons." He says he rarely gets hassled because of his work "beyond the usual homophobic death threats" of which he gets several a year, he says. Is his work shocking? "To some people," he answers. "But it's not my goal."

Taboos as Commentary John Fleck greets you at the door with the irony of it all.

"They take away whatever the grant would have been -- like $7,000 -- and they hand you $50,000 in publicity by doing so," he muses. "It catapults you into this national forum."

Fleck hastily tidies up the papers and reviews of his work strewn about his old Spanish-style house in Silverlake, a hot and dusty Los Angeles neighborhood shared uneasily by yups and street toughs. The lanky 39-year-old artist, trained as an actor, works regularly in theater and television. He calls what he does "one-man solo theater shows." "Performance artist" is a title that's been bestowed upon him.

Whatever he's called, Fleck has certainly lived up to the controversial profile that characterizes many performance artists. With a $5,000 NEA grant last year he produced "Blessed Are All the Little Fishes" -- "the show that got me in pretty much all the trouble with NEA."

Fleck explains: "Well, there is one point where I urinate on stage." He rolls his eyes. "Whoopie doopie. Taken out of context it sounds like sensationalism. But there was some social relevance attached. It really wasn't disgusting or rude or crude. I don't think anybody was offended by it. In fact, I think if you look back it's nothing new. It's been done before."

In an Artweek review last year, Fleck was described as being "known for histrionic operatic vocals, manic energy and flagrant displays of his private parts. ... He tests the boundaries by turning performance excesses and taboos into cultural commentary."

Fleck's "Fishes" was originally a 10-minute club performance piece. "I gave the illusion that I was hurting this little goldfish -- a long story -- and they started screaming, 'Save the fish! Save the fish!' And I'm such a good actor," he interjects drolly, "this man jumped out of the audience and started calling me every name in the book ... I thought he was gonna hit me. And he grabbed this fish and he took off. And he saved the fish. I thought, 'Whoa!' I love stuff like that."

Fleck then expanded the piece into a 40-minute performance that played at several respected venues. One of them, the Tiffany Theater, had reservations at first. "They didn't want me to come there," he says. "Let's face it. A lot of performance art is garbage." But Fleck and his director persuade the theater to present his show, which eventually ran for six weeks.

The piece, which focuses on Christian guilt, is highly personal and symbolic and has some nudity. It opens with him dressed as a mermaid "swimming on a toilet" on wheels, he explains. In the course of the performance he extracts both a bottle of tequila and a goldfish from the toilet; he also urinates into it, and mimes vomiting into it. Hidden inside the toilet are discrete compartments that allow him to do all these things. "That goldfish is still alive," he says reassuringly.

The piece is not without knowing humor. A cry of protest over the killing of dolphins segues into a cry of regret over the cancellation of the "Flipper" television show.

Although he supports gay-rights issues, he says his work deals less with gay themes than with androgyny. "I always deal with sexual confusion," Fleck says. "I've had as many women lovers as men. I'm with a man right now. ... Of course in this day of the plague, so to speak, it isn't as easy to cross over, nor would I want to. I just want to settle down."

In "I Got the He-Be-She-Be's" Fleck plays his own male and female halves making love to himself.

"Why is it art?" he muses about his work, and chuckles. "Because art professionals say it is. ... I've got a pile of reviews saying how wonderful I am. It isn't for everybody. Not everybody's going to understand it, but not everybody understands modern art."

He loses money -- even with grants -- on performance art. "It certainly hasn't helped my acting career," he says. "Most people think performance artists can't act."