Decay Creeps Over America’s Mental Institutions in Christopher Payne’s “Asylum”

For his second solo exhibition at Benrubi Gallery, Christopher Payne offers “Asylum,” a photographic record of the buildings that supported America’s now-obsolete psychiatric hospital system. During this nearly forgotten era, patients were secluded from society in large, seemingly peaceful and well-designed complexes. Over six years, Payne visited 70 of these hospitals in 30 states, where he found magnificent facilities in various states of disrepair. Many of the buildings have since been demolished; these photos are all that’s left.

The intimate portraits of discarded objects and larger, cinematic interiors are transfixing yet disturbing. Once palatial and welcoming, the buildings are dilapidated and empty. The quietude of the gallery only amplifies an eerie tranquility.

Yet instead of simply adding to the “ruin porn” trend, these works meditate on how such spaces were once lived-in and highly functioning. Amid the decay, there are signs of a community at work. A post office seems like it could still be in operation, while film projection equipment looks antique but not ancient.

Payne’s photos also illuminate smaller details regarding the people who populated these institutions. One photo shows patient toothbrushes; another, their scattered suitcases. In another, a wooden casket lies next to unused grave markers.

The exhibition, which follows the publication of Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals (2009), also features several new prints and supplemental archival materials. In particular, an array of postcards reveals how these buildings, now reclaimed by nature, were once a source of civic pride. Payne’s radiant photos show how such pride only faded with time as it gave way to dust and decay.


—Ashley McNelis


Asylum” is on view at Benrubi Gallery, New York, Feb. 11–Mar. 26, 2016.

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