All Kinds of ‘Wrong’ Just Right at SFAI

Liz Cohen Lowrider Builder and Child, 2012; Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York

Liz Cohen Lowrider Builder and Child, 2012; (Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York)

In George Jones’ rollicking track Wrong’s What I Do Best, the singer claims, “I’m just trying to find myself / Before I get too old.” But ones’ search is just a ruse, as he’s got himself pretty much figured out — he’s an outlaw, a loser, a seeker of “blues and bad news.”

For his first curatorial effort at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), Hesse McGraw, the Vice President for Exhibitions and Public Programs, joins forces with artist Aaron Spangler to gather an impressive exhibition of fifteen contemporary artists and collaboratives. Like Jones, the artist personas represented are outrageous, excessive and elusive. For Wrong’s What I Do Best, it’s all about the story, truth (and intention) be damned.

Ashley Bickerton, <i>White Head I</i>, 2012; Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong
Ashley Bickerton, White Head I, 2012; Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

The installation begins just outside the Walter and McBean Galleries. To the right, floor to ceiling mirrors reflect visitors back at themselves. This show is about personhood — there’s no escaping it. The exhibition guide includes quotes from each artist instead of descriptive text or curatorial statements. In some instances, the quotes line up so well they actually call attention to details in the works. For instance, Trenton Doyle Hancock is quoted saying “I want to show that I’m not trying to cover up anything any longer.” In the top right corner of his painting, A New Creature #1, a small hole exposes the stretcher bar behind.

The visual overload of Hancock’s work is matched, and possibly exceeded, by Ashley Bickerton’s contributions, which are best described as large-scale assemblages of natural and man-made overabundance. With their open mouths, prominent tongues, and enlarged, glossy eyes, her female heads are witchy representations of pure abandonment.

Upstairs, Jonathan Meese’s painting We Toll… features a central figure, staring, on a canvas of thick abstract expressionism (echoed nicely in CLUB PAINT’s contributions), iron crosses on either side of her head and flames rising from below. To the right of Meese’s painting, Brad Kahlhamer’s Desert, Forest, City is a densely populated drawing of bloody spatter, skeletons, girls in pigtails, and birds of prey. The horror vacui within both Meese and Kahlhamer’s works is echoed by the artists themselves. “In art you can never go too far,” says Meese. Kahlhamer’s stated goal is to “go completely wildcat, totally unauthorized, and let’s see what happens.”

Nikki S. Lee, <i>Layers, Rome 2</i>, 2007; Coursty of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co, New York
Nikki S. Lee, Layers, Rome 2, 2007; Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co, New York

Other aspects of the show are less overtly off-the-rails. Three Dana Schutz works give mysterious narrative shape to improbable situations, including two charcoal drawings from 2014, cubist scenes crowded with nefarious figures. Marianne Vitale’s sculptures are by turns inexplicable and confrontational: a series of bronze Douche Bags are scattered about the main gallery floor.

Many works feature the artists themselves. Nikki S. Lee’s Layers, Rome 2 is a double portrait of Lee — one photographic, the other hand drawn — and over seven feet tall. On video, Laurel Nakadate thrashes on an older man’s floor as he “exorcises” her. Aaron Storck’s 12 Ways shows the artist in what could be his studio doing a lot of things, none of them very productive. Lowrider Builder and Child positions artist Liz Cohen in front of a custom hot rod with a child at her breast. In a nearby video of her bikini-clad and pregnant, she operates the car’s hydraulics. Both are part of Bodywork, Cohen’s enormous undertaking to transform her physical self and skill set to fit into the world of custom automotives.

Laurel Nakadate, <i>Exorcism in January</i>, 2009; Courtesy of Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York
Laurel Nakadate, Exorcism in January, 2009; Courtesy of Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York

So many of the works in Wrong’s What I Do Best are just snippets of larger, long term projects; for example, Tanyth Berkeley’s haunting portraits of Linda Leven, or Samara Golden’s spooky, stuffed-deer she posed under a heat lamp on the gallery’s stairs. The exhibition also relies on name recognition to fill in the gaps, which invariably leaves a portion of the audience with plenty of questions (and names to look up), which isn’t the worst thing that can happen in a large-scale group exhibition.

Wrong’s What I Do Best makes an argument for embracing the outlaw ways. It positions the artists who dare to reflect the transgressive, deranged aspects of society back to the viewer as that society’s conscience (and potential saviors). Waylon Jennings sums it up the best: “I’ve always been crazy but it’s kept me from going insane.”

Wrong’s What I Do Best is on view at SFAI’s Walter and McBean Galleries through July 26, 2014. For more information visit

All Kinds of ‘Wrong’ Just Right at SFAI 9 May,2014Sarah Hotchkiss

  • John Rapko

    I’m mystified that this review fails to so much as note a major element of the show, which are the two taxidermied and tattooed pigs of Wim Delvoye. These are evident instances of art that constitutively involve the abuse of animals, and so are the second such instances of animal abuse in art show and promoted at the San Francisco Art Institute in the past 7 years (the earlier one being the notorious showing of Adel Abdessemed’s animal snuff films in late March, 2008). Is this really a sort of outlaw-ism that you wish to affirm?


Sarah Hotchkiss

Sarah Hotchkiss is KQED Arts’ Visual Arts Editor and a San Francisco-based artist. She watches a lot of science fiction, which she reviews in a semi-regular publication called Sci-Fi Sundays. Follow her at @sahotchkiss.

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