The Back Room

Image of a group of people in front of paintings at a gallery.

Lost and Found

Theadora Walsh

One of the tee-shirts designed to commemorate Jordan Stein’s gallery Cushion Works moving from San Francisco to Chicago is an “I ♥ SF” shirt. “That’s weird,” Jordan says, and I’m not sure if he means it’s weird he designed the shirt, or weird that he still loves San Francisco. 

Jordan, who’s leaving the city after nineteen years, scrolls down to an alternative design, this one substituting a broken heart. “Frisco broke my heart!” Does leaving the city really tear you apart? Maybe not; he opts for a black rose instead. I black rose San Francisco. “Would you wear this?” he asks. I think about it for a second. “Maybe I’d drape it over a seat in my car.” 

The first time I went to Cushion Works, it was to see Anne Walsh read from her new book on Leonora Carrington, alongside contributors Dodie Bellamy and Claudia La Rocco (the editor of this project). I sat down in a room sprouting over with intimacy, weeded with intimacy. Only after thirty minutes, maybe, did I notice paintings on the walls, did I understand that I was not just in a mythological rec-room where some of my favorite living writers were speaking together easily, conferring a most cinematic scene, but also in an art gallery. 

Dog in t-shirt.
Lolly wears Cushion Works in the gallery’s first tee-shirt campaign. Photo: Lindsey White.

The project started in 2017 as a nights and weekends space. Jordan was working full time as a curator at an arts non-profit when he asked Susan Schroder if he could have a little space in her operating cushion factory to show artwork, a neighborhood place for his friends to visit. (A large portion of the building has long been dedicated to affordable art studios; Jordan’s partner, the artist Lindsey White, has had a space there for years, and he used to have his own studio as well.) But when a frame-builder left his studio, Susan encouraged Jordan to take that larger, unusual L-shaped space at an extremely generous price — “it was really, really affordable.” 

For a while, the project didn’t have a name. Lutz Bacher, one of the artists shown at the gallery, wanted to call it “Jordo’s.” Then the idea came up to just name it after the factory, Cushion Works. Susan said yes, a response one imagines she must sometimes regret. “People are constantly walking into our office thinking it’s the gallery.” 


Sometimes I get the sense that history in the Bay Area is always on the brink of tearing apart, momentary and fleeting since it started — sporadically mourned, forgotten and then in a few years mythologically recalcified by small, splintered groups of friends so it can be mourned again. 

San Jose State University field trip to see Gene Beery’s 2019 exhibition at Cushion Works. Jordan Stein is pictured at the far left. Photo: Shaun O’Dell.

Susan, who Jordan fondly refers to as “The Cushion Maker,” is one of the only people I’ve met who actually seems deserving of the title “patron of the arts.” She was so enthusiastic about the project she paid to have the studio’s linoleum floors ripped out and the exposed wood underneath polished. The inaugural show was Simple Machines by the artist Zarouhie Abdalian. Abdalian’s small sculptural interventions — black oblong triangles acting as liberated doorstoppers — would have drawn attention to the project space’s physicality. The notion that he could place the work, Jordan says, or that someone would buy the work, truly didn’t cross his mind.

Show number two, The Sick Painter, featured Brett Goodroad, a friend of Jordan’s and, at the time, a long-distance trucker moving organic vegetables across the Southwest. Looking at documentation online, I do notice a vegetal quality in the paintings’ mutating colors. They seem to rot in real time — decay to verdigris, and back again. Time’s working. His abstractions invite attempts at pattern making, like I’m picking out constellations in the compost bin. Other works are ever-so-slightly figurative; their organic delicacy reminds me of burning my eye on a light in a dark room, blinking frames as the form that made the retinal scar slowly decays. They’re great paintings. I tell Jordan and he says the only thing he’s been completely confident about with Cushion Works is that the work he’s shown has been incredible. 

Brett Goodroad, Burt or On the Mountain One Line Grown (2016–17), oil on canvas. Courtesy of BAMPFA.

Others agree. Jordan’s home-grown curatorial project was quickly noticed by the larger art world. Larry Rinder, then director and chief curator for the Berkeley Art Museum, bought the biggest Goodroad painting in the show, forcing Jordan to learn how to make a price list. A few years later, when he put together a second show of the artist’s work, Hilton Als wrote about it. 

The New Yorker barely acknowledges art in San Francisco, so it makes me happy that Als’s piece wasn’t about a show at SFMOMA, or something at the short-lived Gagosian outpost, which we are supposed to be missing, but about Cushion Works. And, it was written because Als is friends with Jordan and, as he writes in the review, was curious about what his friend was up to. We obsess over the wrong things here. You don’t go to San Francisco for institutional exhibitions. From Als, at the top of his review: “When I got on the plane to San Francisco, I was looking forward to not experiencing much cultural product for a while.” 

About Cushion Works, he writes, “A wonderfully eccentric space with a family feel, the gallery is designed for utility, rather than sleekness of presentation, and one of its joys is that it’s not a showcase for work that has been commodified.” 

The project space, started for friends, is big-time now. This has its benefits — Goodroad is no longer driving his truck — but has also spurred a crisis of definition. What happens when the project space becomes a gallery, and a profitable one at that? “It’s just a room! It’s just a room!" Jordan protests, “It doesn’t need to be a business. But the calculus was scrambled.”

Sign made by musician and composer Madalyn Merkey for her 2018 performance at Cushion Works.

Jordan moved to San Francisco in 2007 to study photography at SFAI, though he adamantly insists that he is “not an artist.” Pressed, he will admit that he did, at one time, make conceptual sculpture, influenced by his teacher, the artist Trisha Donnelly. He was taken up with conceptualism, felt a romantic optimism for the genre, but never quite enjoyed making it. “I realized I only hang out with artists, but I just don’t make things. It was like 23andMe, but a slow burn.”

After finishing art school, he moved to the Mission. It sounds ideal. The city was affordable, all his classmates ended up staying, and they gathered easily, having dinners, running into one another and sharing their work. Jordan started working at The Exploratorium, an educational jungle gym that invites children to play around inside of science, where he collaborated with artists to put on workshops and exhibitions. He realized he could do the work he loved: excavating archives, illustrating hyper-specific obsessions, and telling visual stories, all without actually having to be an artist. This developed into a curatorial style he describes as “lost and found,” curious about and dedicated to work that “fell through the cracks of history.” 


A few months ago, Jordan told me, he got tickets to see Pavement play three nights in a row. The first night was pretty good. The second night the band played a lot of the same songs. The third, he couldn’t bring himself to go. Performing was a job for these musicians; their itinerant art was stripped of something essential. 

I offer a strange counter: I’d recently learned that Yoko Ono and John Lennon at one time owned around $60 million worth of dairy cows. When asked about the exact figure by a reporter at Playboy, Ono replied, “I don’t know. I’m not a calculator. I’m not going by figures. I’m going by excellence of things.” She kept art from being her job by making the trade of rare Holsteins her job. 

“Is that better?” Jordan asks, and I say, “I don’t know.” An ambulance drives by and Susan’s three dogs howl in response. Each pitch rising up from her downstairs office is slightly different. In addition to running the Cushion Factory, Susan competes in regional and national dog shows with her otherwise disarmingly poised Salukis.


There’s an immediacy to San Francisco. A lack of subtlety. “You come to San Francisco to understand yourself, maybe,” Jordan says, “and that might not be an attractive thing to most people in the world?” I think about this with art, the brash way our institutions defund and cut programs. But it’s also atmospheric; we smell ash in the air. This is a hyperbolic place. This is where things end. And start.

Photo: Theadora Walsh.

At the recent opening of Grace Rosario Perkins’s show at Cushion Works, I noticed, for the first time, a row of oversized nails jutting out of a ceiling beam bisecting the gallery. I imagine that they might have once been used for some part of cushion assembly. Everyone is pressed up close to Grace’s oversized canvases, which exist between painting, photograph, and collage, and in-between arms and turned heads. It’s a homecoming of sorts for the New Mexico artist, who went to Mills and worked in the Mission at Creativity Explored for a long time. Her pieces, their overlapping valences, are patch-worked with family photographs and ephemera, buffed with thick brushstrokes, vibrant with implacable figuration. They oscillate destabilized images, rocking me. 

People keep clasping Jordan on the shoulder, asking him what his last show in San Francisco is going to be. The artist Dewey Crumpler sends a congratulatory text: “You’re a madman!” It’s crowded inside, very bright, so bright you might forget that there aren’t any windows.

A gallerist visiting from Los Angeles comes over to ask if Cushion Works will be moving to Chicago? I struggle to reply. Well, Jordan is moving to Chicago — Lindsey got a job at the Art Institute in the wake of SFAI’s implosion, the latest in a seemingly unending series of Bay Area arts institution debacles — but the room in this cushion factory is not. The space is a physical thing. The idea that it could be thought of as exchangeable, portable, evaluated through a monetized sense of equity, is briefly wounding. The space is moving to Chicago? No. That isn’t what’s happening. Jordan feels emotional over the idea of saying goodbye to Susan, and to the cushion factory. That’s what’s happening. 

Susan Schroder wears Cushion Works X Dewey Crumpler, 2022. Photo: Jordan Stein.

In my most skeptical moments the inter-locking relationship between art, capitalism, and commercial real estate feels virulently clear. Everything is without integrity. Any association you might hope to lay claim to by living in a place is atrophied, has gone limp. But Cushion Works is tied to its location; it is defined by the people who come to it, and it is as alive as Jordan is. The gallery is exceptional for a number of reasons, but perhaps most so because it’s managed to retain an ethos of social commitment as a conceptual through-line. The curatorial project is based in an earnest curiosity, a kind of active listening — in short, in friendliness. 


“I’ve got like five friends in Chicago,” Jordan says. I get the sense that there will be plenty to investigate there. Unlike San Francisco, it is an affordable city full of art schools and well-funded art institutions. And, I feel excited for Jordan, even moderately jealous of the move. Re-reading Yvonne Rainer’s autobiography, Feelings Are Facts, I’m reminded that the first time she moved away from San Francisco, she, too, went to Chicago. I want to tell Jordan that the dancer left for Chicago, and that her understanding of youth ended with that trip. But when I find the passage, it’s too full of vitriol, of rejection, to send. “It is a gray, gray city. Gray in the sense of being colorless — its filth, its squalor, its meaningless frenzy […] San Francisco’s fog was never as gray as this. The former is colorful and romantic by comparison.” She never saw Chicago, she just saw that she wasn’t in San Francisco. So, she came back.

Grace Rosario Perkins, Cheii Knew We Were in The White World (detail, 2022), acrylic, spray paint, photograph, and necklace. Photo: Chris Grunder.

At some point our interviews became conversations, and I realized that even I’d been pulled into the Cushion Works circle of friends. When Jordan asks me to do a gallery talk with Grace, it feels natural to say yes. After dinner at a dive bar that serves spaghetti, I walk around the Mission for a while. It’s quiet here. I’m alone with my thoughts. I feel an intimacy with San Francisco. Maybe a pathological intimacy? A loss here feels like the loss of my own youth. Everything’s personal. I think Jordan feels that way, too. I’ve never felt especially good while living here, even before the second tech boom came and took away all the affordable spaces. It’s been okay, there are good friends, and all sorts of existential dread colors the days. The view’s still beautiful. 

After a number of conversations about Cushion Works closing, or not closing but changing, or not closing but moving to Chicago, Jordan calls. Susan has suggested he keep his gallery. Why not, she suggests, find someone to help you keep it open? Much to my surprise, Jordan asks me, and my partner, the artist Gabriel Garza, if we’d like to share his space. I’m not sure. I read this all over and call back. The intention of trying to live in a way that protects something ephemeral runs the risk of being precious, overtly nostalgic — but, still, it holds a profound hopefulness. 

It strikes me that people in the Bay Area are more critical of “doing what you’ve got to do” than those in other places I’ve lived. The art scene here has what’s become a retro, almost nostalgic, disdain for “selling out.” When I was a kid, I remember older artists complaining about pressure to move to New York or LA; now people my age move because they can’t afford to live here as artists. But what do they hope to find? A career in the arts? 

Mia Pixley in the Cushion Works entryway, soundchecking a line and two shakes. Conceived by Simone Bailey and Lynn Marie Kirby and composed in response to the surrounding neighborhood, the 2022 outdoor performance also featured dancer James Kirby Rogers and video artist Kedar Lawrence. Photo: Jordan Stein.

The most hopeful thing I can think of for this art scene, any art scene, is a turn away from institutional validation, a turn toward relationships, intimacy, and periods of work defined by friend groups — a turn toward collaboration. Writing this essay has turned into a role at the factory. As of January 27, I’m running In Concert next door and keeping Jordan’s doors open in San Francisco. Until he comes back. 

Lead image: Zarouhie Abdalian, Simple Machines (2014; installation detail, 2017), wood, paint, instructions. Photo: Robert Divers Herrick.

The Back Room