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.
Christopher Payne (b. 1968) was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts and lives in Manhattan. He earned a Bachelor degree in Architecture from Columbia University and a Masters in Architecture from The University of Pennsylvania. His work has been widely exhibited, including shows at the LOOK3 Photo Festival in Virginia, the Kennedy Museum of Art in Ohio and Kalamazoo Institute of Arts in Michigan. Payne 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. He has published three monographs; New York’s Forgotten Substations: The Power Behind the Subway (Princeton Architectural Press, 2002) and North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City (Fordham University Press, 2014).
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.