LOS ANGELES — As the art scene in this city continues to grow exponentially, more and more galleries are moving into abandoned industrial and commercial buildings, converting their utilitarian environs into rarified houses of culture. One exhibition currently on view, however, fills a rundown space with art before the building is stripped of its previous function. Taking over three floors of the former Los Angeles Metropolitan Medical Center, Human Condition features work by an impressive array of 80 artists placed throughout former offices, operating rooms, nurseries, and the psychiatric ward.
Founded in 1971 as the first Black-owned hospital in LA, the center closed in 2013 after a massive Medicaid fraud lawsuit took down its parent company, Pacific Health Corp. From the looks of it, the staff cleared out in a hurry, leaving behind books, calendars, and even medical records. Nothing seems to have been touched, or cleaned, in the three years since.
This ruin porn setting forms the backdrop for an exhibition on the physical and psychological essence of humanity, a subject both vague and trite. (Isn’t all art about this, after all?) “What is so interesting about the building is that it is a physical embodiment of so much emotion. So many people died here, so many were born here — excitement, trauma, and pain all housed under one roof,” exhibition organizer John Wolf told Hyperallergic during a press preview. That may be true, but it also raises the question of whether personal suffering forms the best framework for aesthetic — and commercial — contemplation.
This doesn’t preclude the show from including some compelling work, and Wolf has done a good job of selecting a broad range of pieces that explore the theme without simply being literal illustrations. As an example, Amir H. Fallah’s second-floor installation composed of paintings, textiles, and black lights transforms one end of a large room into an immersive and mesmerizing spectacle. His shrouded figures surrounded by evocative objects manifest the psychological in the physical and are clearly influenced by Surrealist dream worlds. Alluding to the way institutions attempt to maintain behavioral control, Christopher Reynolds has completely covered the kitchen in Baker-Miller Pink, a color that supposedly suppresses appetite and aggression when subjects are exposed to it for 15 minutes.
In certain instances, the relationship between the art and its unorthodox setting clicks, as with Polly Borland’s photos of adults dressed as babies, hung in the nursery. Meanwhile, the small plants sprouting up through cracks in the floor might easily be mistaken as the results of neglect, but they are actually impeccably rendered bronze sculptures by Tony Matelli. How they relate to the show’s theme isn’t entirely clear, but they take full advantage of their dilapidated environs.
Aside from the work inside the hospital, what’s also on view here is the relationship between the art establishment and gentrification, as well as race. The website for Human Condition touts the “community-driven cultural renewal” in the the hospital’s neighborhood of West Adams, a historically Black and Latino area, yet only a few artists of color and even fewer with local connections are included in the show.
The building is currently owned by CIM group, which plans to convert it into condos (what else?); Wolf, as corporate art advisor to CIM, was granted access before the conversion, according to Curbed LA. CIM was once labeled “Hollywood’s richest slumlord” by the LA Weekly, and in fact, one prominent artist dropped out of the project because of this history. Very literally, then, the exhibition lays bare the role that art can play as a way station between “neglected” neighborhood and outside development and displacement — a role that’s becoming increasingly common in our contemporary human condition.
Human Condition continues at the former Los Angeles Metropolitan Medical Center (2231 S Western Avenue, Jefferson Park, Los Angeles) through November 30.