BY TRACEY O’SHAUGHNESSY REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN
If in every saint there is a little sinner, in every horror, there is a little beauty. It may be the horror that lends a shivering sense of sublimity to what should be repellant. Or, it may be that what we consider hideous is merely the other side of gorgeousness.
Whatever it is, Avery Danziger captures it.
The Sharon photographer, whose stunning photographs are now on display at Five Points Gallery in Torrington, wasn’t struck by the voyeuristic creepiness when he first spotted the Harlem Valley Psychiatric Facility. The institution, comprising more than 80 buildings on 800 acres, opened in 1926 and shuttered in 1994.
Boasting a nine-hole golf course, its own power plant, bakery and bowling alley, the asylum was a self-sustaining city. During its heyday, in the 1940s and ’50s, it housed 5,000 patients and employed 5,000 staff members. It was considered ahead of its time in its use of insulin and electroconvulsive shock therapy, as well as prefrontal lobotomies.
But that was not what Danziger saw, or what intrigued him, about this haunting collection of decaying buildings. What he saw, to quote the philosopher Edmund Burke, was a “terrible beauty,” a sense of lushness in the very decay of the place, a collection of arresting colors and contours that, in their rot, evoke the tenderness of an exquisitely composed painting.
“It was such a cacophony of destruction, a terrible beauty,” he said. “It just rocked me.”
Danziger’s photographs — 13 large-scale color prints, largely of the interior of the complex — read like deeply textured, sumptuously colored paintings. They are, in their very decomposition, abstract meditations on color and form, as well as implicit reflections on loss and mortality.
Need the viewer know that these corroded corridors once housed the mad? Not at all. Indeed, although there is a sense of depopulation of this once-commanding campus, it is more of rumination on the power of nature to conquer the man-made and leave it elegantly altered.
Danziger spent two years in the facility, and although he said he might have been attracted by the lurid aspects of the place — the empty wheelchair at the end of the corridor, the metal receptacle labeled “Valium” — he chose to ignore them.
So, instead of a sense of a specific place and, in our collective psyche, that menacing snake pit of the insane one gets the sense of everyplace.
Clearly, these storerooms with their long, mathematically calibrated concrete columns and enormous plate glass window have a place in our cultural consciousness. These places of dilapidated florescent lights, of rusting metal pipes and crumbling doorways and fixtures are familiar to all of us as former engines of economic progress and incubators of ingenuity. Their demise and degeneration transformed much of the northeast into ghost towns of post-industrial abandon.
But that is not the story Danziger’s photos tell. These images, of tendrils of green paint flecking the pockmarked concrete walls and ceilings of capacious rooms, are beautiful aesthetic set pieces. Granted some, like of Building 27, an underground tunnel, are haunting and suggestive. But the image is more about perspective, angles and light. It’s a photograph that reveals shards of sunlight lacing through the fetid muck on the floor.
The buildings clearly boast every ingredient for toxicity. The pipes are swathed in asbestos. The paint is lead. The oil that spilled in “Building 34, Power Plant” is fuchsia red in toxicity. Danziger notes that although the oil is toxic to us, the bacteria seem to love it, feasting on its riches below. This photograph, taken from the catwalk of the Power Plant, is one of the most texturally sophisticated and compositionally splendid. Danziger’s got it all here — the crusty oxidation of the ornamental grade, the cool gray ceramic of the stone, the speckles of lead paint, the lurid green of the thick steam pipe.
Throughout these images of silvery steam pipes encased in asbestos, of flywheels and steam dynamos bathed in confectionary color and afternoon light there hovers the “presence of absence.”
That’s clear in evident and subtle ways. Danziger’s image of the staff recreation room is a blatant invitation. The spearmint green door, with its thick glass sheared into perilous shards, opens onto a light-filled room, littered with shavings of lemon yellow lead paint. The shreds are smeared all over the floor like leaves on a midautumn day. In the distance an alluring curve of a lunch counter, picketed by empty swivel stools, serves as a haunting reminder of human presence. Paint peels from the ceiling like kudzu. Danziger reminds us that nothing is quite so disturbing as a place of happiness turned battered and forgotten.”
As James Hugunin of the School of the Chicago Art Institute writes in the exhibit catalog, “in these images one senses most directly a capacity to register the persistence of past suffering as absorbed into the substance of lived space, into the seating of human history; yet given the artist’s skill in poetic visualization, the ‘existence of the horrible in every atom of air’ that so pervades these spaces has been aesthetically redeemed.”
Here is a storeroom that, now abandoned, looks like a small chapel. There is a doorway framed in plum red, the light yellow paint shedding as if human hands had clawed at it. The hallway floor is bathed in a soft blue. The caramel ceramic bricks above it catch the light, while, above, the familiar mint green paint adds a contrast that is either ridiculous or sublime or perhaps a bit of both.
The title of Danziger’s exhibit, “Seeking Permanence,” suggests the folly of human creation in seeking to be any more than fleeting. Perhaps there is some wisdom in the notion that it’s the transience of this construction that gives it its uncanny beauty.