Benrubi Gallery is pleased to announce Asylum, the second solo exhibition from award-winning photographer Christopher Payne. Payne visited seventy shuttered mental hospitals in thirty states between 2002 and 2008, photographing both their palatial exteriors and their crumbling interiors. The facades are ornate and enormous—the largest facilities could house more than 10,000 patients—while the dusty rooms often look as though their occupants had just left, their labeled toothbrushes still hanging in neat rows. Many of these institutions have since been demolished, so Payne’s images serve as their final appearance in the historical record.
Asylum reminds us of the pre-pharmaceutical era of psychiatric treatment, when the mentally ill were shunted out of public view in vast, village-like facilities, complete with movie theaters, hairdressing salons, bowling alleys and vegetable gardens. But although many of the buildings are the worse for wear, they seem less like prisons than mansions, as if architectural rigor could soothe a troubled mind. There is a palpable tension between the orderly spaces and the suffering and confusion of the patients who once lived in them, a melancholy that builds to tragedy as one contemplates images of empty coffins and pre-numbered grave markers and shelf after shelf of unclaimed cremains.
Payne’s photographs evoke their absent tenants by the traces they left behind, be it their clothes or medical records or the erosion caused by the passage of thousands of unknown hands and feet. Yet they also invoke their caregivers and family and a society which knew of no other way to care for the mad then building them vast palaces in which to wile away their last years on earth.
The Benrubi exhibition follows Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals, which was published by MIT Press in 2009 and includes an essay by renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks.
Christopher Payne studied architecture at Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania before beginning his career as a photographer specializing in the documentation of America’s vanishing architecture and industrial landscape. These photographs have been gathered in three books: New York’s Forgotten Substations: The Power Behind the Subway (2002), offered dramatic, rare views of the behemoth machines that are hidden behind modest facades in New York City. Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals (2009), which includes an essay by the renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks, was the result of a seven-year survey of America’s vast and largely shuttered state mental institutions. Payne’s new book, North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City (2014), a collaboration with writer Randall Mason, explores an uninhabited island of ruins in the East River.
Payne’s recent work, including a series in progress on the American textile industry, has veered away from the documentation of the obsolete towards a celebration of craftsmanship and small-scale manufacturing that are persevering in the face of global competition and evolutions in industrial processes. He has been awarded grants from the Graham Foundation, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. His work has been featured in publications around the world and several times in special presentations by the New York Times Magazine.