The halls of the former Los Angeles Metropolitan Medical Center, a hospital that closed three years ago amid allegations of fraud, still smell of chemicals and cleaners, now mingled with mustiness. The building isn’t a mess, but it’s not tidy either: debris, abandoned files, some dust and grime, etc. It was purchased just over a year ago, and before it undergoes transformation—like so many big buildings in the West Adams neighborhood—art advisor John Wolf has turned it into a stage for a labyrinthine exhibition, grandly titled “Human Condition.”
Eighty artists are in the show, which makes experiencing it in full a feat. On the ground floor, at the end of the main hallway, hangs a histrionic Gregory Crewdson photograph of a woman with blood on her hands sitting on a neatly made bed. Installed nearby on a shelf is Matthew Day Jackson’s Trophy—seven sculptures, including a silicon cast of Jackson’s head, a prototype of his skull, and another of brain matter, each mounted on a steel pole. Right from the start, mortality, medical fetishization, and violence come to the fore.
The medical center shut down after its parent company, Pacific Health Corp., admitted to recruiting homeless patients from Skid Row and billing the government for unnecessary care. Then, a year after its closing, a former nurse alleged that hospital administrators, with the help of an ambulance company and a nursing home, illegally locked elderly, mentally ill, and disabled patients into the psychiatric ward in a conspiracy to keep Medicare money flowing.
It’s not necessary to know whether real people had actually been imprisoned there to perceive the air of distress pervading the fourth-floor psychiatric ward, and this is underscored by the art on view: “human nature is weak i pulled out my eye and swallowed it,” reads a Daniel Joseph Martinez painting, with red text overlaying an imperfect black and white pinwheel. Gintare Bandinskait took over a green-tiled shower stall, bringing in an old-fashioned bathtub and filling it with red-brown resin and hanging above the tub a surreal photograph of a green face surfacing amid swirling green and red liquid.
Two floors down, in the maternity ward, Polly Borland’s photographs tie in with the original pastel wallpaper and murals (one of which shows a kindly mother rabbit reading her babies a book called Your Life Begins). Borland depicts a man in a diaper beating his chest in one photo, and in another, a group of men in silky little-girl dresses playing Ring Around the Rosie. Visually, the perversity is arresting. Conceptually, however, it’s a bit reductive. Viewers are invited to think of the maternity ward in general, rather than this specific ward that served, and possibly disserved, a particular community. Elsewhere in the building, above two out-of-order bathrooms Kendall Carter installed a vintage-style light-box that reads “Rest Rooms,” and then, with arrows, “White” and “Colored.” The press release describes this as the city’s first black-owned hospital (though, according to historical record, two others opened earlier, in 1941 and 1957), but that history isn’t evident anywhere here, and again, the art risks reducing, rather than expanding, the intricacies of the institution’s past.
“Human Condition” is part of a trend to turn interesting, in some cases historic, buildings into temporary art spaces. Other notable examples include Ryan Trecartin’s use of the old Masonic temple on Wilshire as a video set before the Marciano brothers (of Guess renown) began renovating it into a museum, and dealer and curator Tom Solomon’s staging of a Robert Barry show in a Schindler church being sold by a company that bought it for back taxes. In all these cases, the art gives viewers access to spaces they otherwise might not see. These spaces all offer up their histories and scars—and if the artists choose to gloss over them, they may find themselves participating in the process of erasure that always accompanies gentrification.
This isn’t to say “Human Condition” isn’t an exciting show. Certain installations work staggeringly well, especially those that insert themselves subtly into what is already there—like Bettina Hubby’s small bronzes (Q-tips, a rubber-gloved hand), laid out on trays in the cafeteria. It is, however, a complicated one, its complexity palpable even in the space’s strong scent, and should be experienced as such.