ARTSY: The Architecture Of Madness

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Asylum: Inside The World Of Closed State Mental Hosptials, a photographic exhibition of some of America’s most infamous mental health institutions, will haunt Drexel’s Leonard Pearlstein Gallery through October 29th.  Photographer Christopher Payne’s outsized pictures, some of which have been blown up to be over a meter tall, pull back the curtain on the forbidding and largely hidden world of what used to be called ‘insane asylums.’ Still, appearances can be deceiving. “Once I got inside, they really weren’t that creepy,” Payne told Phawker. Once inside, Payne, who has a masters’ degree in architecture, explores the everyday use of rooms, such as hallways, bathrooms, beauty salons, and storage facilities. The photographer admits to making subtle adjustments to the mise en scene to more accurately reflect what these spaces were used for. The results are arresting: vibrant color palettes and creative geometries bring a strange and terrible beauty to places that have been portrayed as de facto dungeons in films, such as Session 9 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  The first presents Buffalo State Hospital [pictured above], a gothic structure in black-and-white, which will invariably remind the viewer of Dr. Frankenstein’s castle. But once we get past the grim, monumental exteriors, the photographs gradually give way to increasingly intimate and humanizing scenes such as a toothbrush stand holding fifty or sixty individually named patient toothbrushes. Most of the facilities Payne photographed had been abandoned long ago, and as such most of the images in Asylum document their dilapidation and decrepitude. If these walls could talk, the tales they would tell would surely put the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King to shame. But alas, they have have largely been silenced — dismantled and swept into the dustbin of history. Many of the facilities have long since fallen victim to the wrecking ball and in at least one instance, Payne got there just in the nick of time. The aforementioned Buffalo State Hospital was demolished one week after he photographed it. Still, Payne’s photographs will serve as enduring reminders of these long since vanished epicenters of anguish and misery and silently advocate for more humane ways of housing and caring for the mentally ill. — BRANDON LAFVING

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