When it opened in 1971, Los Angeles Metropolitan Medical Center was the city’s first black-owned hospital. In the 1970s and '80s it was a thriving, vital part of the West Adams community. But as the neighborhood around it fell into disrepair, the hospital did too.
In 2012, L.A. Metro’s parent company, Pacific Health Corp., was charged with insurance fraud in federal court. An anonymous tip led investigators to discover that the hospital had been rounding up the homeless on skid row, admitting them as patients, and using them to bill medicare for some $16 million worth of unnecessary treatments. After court costs and fines, Pacific Health could no longer afford to pay its employees and L.A. Metro, along with two other hospitals, was shuttered.
When it closed its doors in 2013, L.A. Metro’s employees lost their jobs, its patients were transferred to other hospitals, its contents liquidated and the building sold. The current owners have plans to turn it into a residential space, but for now the old hospital sits just off the 10 on Western Avenue, empty and abandoned.
The interior of L.A. Metro is frozen in time after what appears to be a swift and unsentimental emptying of contents. Loose, unmarked pills are strewn across the empty counters of the pharmacy. Dirty carpets and linoleum floors are scarred from the scrapes and scuffs of a haphazard move-out. A dry-erase board on the psych floor still reads, “TODAY IS: Monday/Lunes. THE DATE TODAY IS: April 8th, 2013. THE WEATHER WILL BE: 69 degrees, THE NEXT HOLIDAY IS: Cinco de Mayo.”
Thanks to the empty building’s current owner and the vision of a creative curator, L.A. Metro is now getting a brief second life as an art gallery. For two months this fall, alongside faded pictures of staff parties and old dry-erase boards, the building’s dingy confines will display an array of expensive, evocative paintings, sculptures and installation works by some 80 contemporary artists from around the world.
"Human Condition" is a massive exhibition that will occupy the first, second and fourth floors of L.A. Metro from October 1 through the end of November. The exhibit is curated and organized by John Wolf, an L.A.-based art advisor and private dealer who helps corporate clients and individuals build collections of modern art. "Human Condition" is Wolf’s self-funded passion project.
On a recent walk-through, the empty hospital was fascinatingly creepy and the art inside impressive in both scope and scale.
Upon entering "Human Condition," visitors will find an unassuming marble bench in the hospital’s lobby. “What a shock when they tell you it won’t hurt and you almost turn inside out when they begin,” an inscription on the bench reads. The piece, by New York-based artist Jenny Holzer, is further contextualized by Chantal Joffe’s large, abstract oil painting of a naked woman hanging above it.
Positioned in front of an office marked “Admissions,” Holzer’s bench and Joffe’s painting set the emotional and psychological mood for the rest of the show. “You get this sense of the raw vulnerability of just being in a hospital,” Wolf says as he admires the pieces. “Joffe painted this specifically for the exhibit.”
Wolf’s extensive connections and knowledge of the art world are on display in hallways and unexpected nooks and room after room of the hospital. Like a series of mini galleries-within-galleries, each unique space displays the work of a different artist.
In the empty nursery on the first floor, a once cheerful mural of bunny rabbits is now faded into sad, muted tones of hospital beige, pink and teal. “This is where your life begins,” the wall reads, coming off more sinister in its current state than it once did. Against this backdrop, Polly Borland’s glossy, vivid photographs pop. Her series, “Babies,” depicts adult men with baby fetishes, sucking on bottles and dressed in adult-sized diapers. It’s hard to imagine a more viscerally effective setting for these images.
On the surgical floor, X-ray viewers are transformed into light-boxes and an orphaned, abandoned oxygen tank sits across from a bronze sculpture. Vintage, ‘70s-era stainless steel surgical lights, still in working order, are the perfect spotlights for Max Hooper Schneider’s sculpture of a backbone suspended in pig’s blood.
On the fourth floor — the psych ward where so many of skid row’s homeless were used as pawns in the hospital’s fraudulent billing scheme — another of Hooper Schneider’s sculptures makes a strong statement in the small confines of a green-tiled, handicap shower.
The collection Wolf has compiled for this show is varied and impressive in both quantity and quality. The fact that the art is displayed against such a psychologically and emotionally charged backdrop lends weight to each piece. It’s hard to imagine the art in this exhibit speaking quite as strongly against the white walls of a clean, well-kept gallery.
“The abandonment of the space is part of the show,” Wolf says. “It’s almost like the hospital itself is one of the artists.”
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Visitors should allow plenty of time to explore the art of "Human Condition," which is open for viewing from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday through Sunday, and by appointment throughout October and November. A typical gallery show might hold half of what is displayed here on just one floor. Behind each door, in empty closets and bathrooms, abandoned offices and cafeterias, one stunning piece of art after another is revealed. And it’s worth taking the time to look closely, because in this gallery, the art isn’t the only thing worth seeing.
"Human Condition," though Nov. 30, Fri.-Sun., 11 a.m.- 6 p.m. and by appointment ; 2231 S. Western Ave., West Adams. humanconditionexhibition.com.