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Arts and Entertainment

This Strange, Intricate Art Show Takes Inspiration From The Horrors Of Mental Institutions

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Artist and writer Michael Criley presents a new exhibit about a doctor in a mental ward, the art and games his patients create, and lobotomies. Dr. AwkwarD's Clinical Findings on the Back Wards is based on a real place: an institution in Weston, West Virginia called the Weston State Hospital. There, the bizarre Dr. AkwarD (a palindrome) interacts with patients, who create art, games and their interpretation of what television must be like. (Criley drew upon the Prinzhorn Collection, a collection of artwork made by patients at University of Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic in the early 1920s.)

A series of detailed ink drawings tell a grim tale of isolation, while a number of games and dioramas take a surreal twist on serious topics like transorbital lobotomies. Carved replicas of the hospital can be found throughout, including in a maze game where one would tip a platform to maneuver a small metal ball through a series of channels. Many of Criley's pieces contain a moving parts, intricately carved and certainly strange.

The most impressive piece of the lot is "Hospital Television." This twisted dollhouse features an internal carousel that slowly turns, displaying a series of tableaus, including a businessman checking into the hospital, a room where citizen's belongings are carelessly discarded as they become patients, and doctors throwing pill-fueled parties.

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The mythology that ties the show together involves a story Criley wrote about a son who was told that his father had died when he was an infant, only to later discover as an adult that his father had been institutionalized since the 1930s—about 35 years, given the time period in which the story takes place. The boy's mother was a nurse who tried everything to care for her husband, including ensuring that he would receive a lobotomy, a relatively new practice at the time.

The transorbital lobotomy was invented Dr. Walter Freeman. It was done by inserting a tool much like an icepick through the eye socket and into the frontal lobe of the brain, then performing specific movements with the pick. Freeman performed the first transorbital lobotomy on a living human in 1946. Because the transorbital lobotomy was simpler than the more complex surgical procedures that had previously been used during lobotomies, mental hospitals were more easily able to provide them in greater numbers. This ruined Freeman's relationship with neurosurgeon James Watts, but it didn't deter the popularity of the procedure. While only 5,074 people were lobotomized in 1949, that jumped to more than 18,000 by 1951.

Criley uses quotes from Freeman throughout the exhibit. You, too, can practice giving a lobotomy on Transorbital Annie, a piece made from a CPR dummy with an attached ice pick. Behind this piece is a mirror, with the words "you have no idea" scratched into it.

Criley told LAist that the words come from a series of letters written by a real patient at another hospital to the outside world, asking his family to help him get out. Hospital staff failed to actually send those letters. Each ended with, "You have no idea."

Other works and drawings in the show were inspired by a mental institution in Lima, Ohio. As for the Weston, it was once called the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum and was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1990, but shut down in 1994. It is still open at times for tours. As with many old institutions that have fallen into disrepair, people like to claim that it's haunted.

Criley is also displaying a number of collages he created, including one that contains a ripped piece of a poster with an actual Andy Warhol signature.

The opening reception will be Saturday, Feb. 27 from 7 - 11 p.m., but the show will be on display through March 27. If you go, you might as well drop by Coagula next door to check out Emma Sulkowicz's Self Portrait: Performance of Object.

The Gregorio Escalante Gallery is located at 978 Chung King Road in Chinatown, 323-697-8727.