Christopher Payne, Asylum @Benrubi

JTF (just the facts): A total of 15 large scale black and white and color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the two main rooms of the gallery and above the reception desk. All of the works are digital chromogenic prints, made between 2003 and 2009. The prints are shown in three sizes: 20×24/20×30 (in editions of 10), 40×50 (in editions of 8+2AP), and 50×60 (in editions of 5+1AP). The show also includes a selection of post cards, architectural drawings, maps, and other ephemera, shown in the project room. A monograph of this body of work was published in 2009 by MIT Press (here). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Just up the road a few towns from where we live, on the way to our local ski mountain, lies the remains of an old psychiatric hospital. It’s a spooky place now, boarded up and empty, and every time we pass it, we comment on its impressive scale. There must be a dozen grand old brick buildings, a permanent baseball field, and even its own train stop – it rivals many small college campuses in its bulk, especially if the overgrown trees and vines could be trimmed away to reveal its elegant bones. Now and then, a fresh new sign appears out front, seemingly with aspirations for reusing the real estate for something else – an arts community, a housing development, who knows what else – but evidence of lively inhabitants never seems to take hold for long, and so it largely sits and decays, in a silently melancholy mood.

In his multi-year project Asylum, Christopher Payne takes us inside places like this, making photographs that revel in the textures of decomposition and the remnants of a bygone era. In visiting some 70 closed hospitals in 30 states, he has documented a vanishing approach to mental health, one where patients were sequestered away in facilities as big as small towns, like inmates in deceptively palatial prisons, safely out of the public eye.

When Payne zeros in on the ornamental details of these hospitals, his pictures take on a lush dilapidated grandeur similar to Robert Polidori’s images of Havana. A marble staircase circles a pastel green colonnade, burnished wooden doors open down a soft yellow hallway with a flaking ceiling, and the balcony of an in-house movie theater traces a sinuous s-curve above the seats below. That these places had such formal architectural accoutrements in the first place is unexpected, and that the hand-crafted features have been left to rot speaks volumes about the changing priorities Payne’s photographs so vividly document.

Most of Payne’s images stick closer to the institutional details that were common in such facilities, walking a knife edge between dreariness and beauty (much like Andrew Moore’s pictures of Detroit’s dilapidated factories) – even in their carefully composed emptiness, shadowy history still echoes through the halls. The rusty saw on the metal table of the autopsy theater, the single bathtub surrounded by lots of tiled space for attendants, the hanging straight jacket turned into a winged cotton still life, the barbed wire fence surrounding the compound, the hopelessly tumbled piles of discarded filing –  each one is a memorialized fragment of old practices and routines, a grim record of the darker side of institutionalization.

It’s when Payne’s photographs turn personal that the images become even more achingly poignant. Patient suitcases rot on shelves in the attic, having made their last journeys. Abandoned plastic toothbrushes hang neatly in a wooden cabinet (each one with a last name affixed to the handle), a reminder of the imposition of uniformity and order. And a wicker casket and an array of unused grave markers (each with just a number cut into the stone) tell the story of patients who died alone in these hospitals, the penciled list pinned to the wall tracking the now forgotten residents who never left.

I think we are right to question photographs that shellac ugliness with the patina of grace, and a few of Payne’s images nestle up too close to loveliness for my tastes; he could have just as easily turned his aesthetic knob further toward making more haunting pictures, and we would have been left with a different (and darker) impression of these decaying relics. Payne is at his best when he finds a hook of humanity, when we as viewers can get beyond the grand architecture and begin to imagine the lives that inhabited these rooms. When I can put my own name on one of those forgotten toothbrushes, or think about my own suitcase stuffed onto a shelf on a one-way trip to oblivion, that’s when his photographs deliver their body blow.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The 20×24/20×30 prints are $3000, the 40×50 prints are $4800, and the 50×60 prints are $6800. Payne’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Christopher Payne, Benrubi Gallery, MIT Press

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Poursuite Editions (here). Softcover, 21 x 29 cm, 144 pages, with 107 black-and-white and color reproductions. Includes an essay by Clément Ghys ... Read on.

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