New York

Bolek Greczynski and the People of the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, “Battlefields”

The Living Museum, Creedmoor Psychiatric Center

Traveling to the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center can seem like going to the end of the earth. It is at the final stop on one of the subway lines in the borough of Queens, and it represents a long and last stop for many of its patients who cannot expect recovery or anticipate any remarkable improvement. However, Creedmoor is not an obscure outpost but a unique and complex subculture within our collective culture. It is a community whose similarities to life on the outside are conspicuous.

In 1984 Bolek Greczynski made a proposal to Creedmoor officials. He requested some space in this enormous institution to set up an active art workshop and a permanent exhibition space for an ongoing installation produced by the patients there. Greczynski knew that Creedmoor had ample space available because its patient population has declined by 400 percent in the past 15 years, due to changing attitudes and legislation concerning long-term hospitalization. His proposal was accepted, and the Living Museum was established.

The constantly changing installation is a collage of elements both planned and spontaneous, which, though somewhat cacophonous, form a cohesive composition. The patients and Greczynski have named their collaborative project “Battlefields,” suggesting the contentiousness of the spaces that they inhabit, both psychic and institutional. Yet the work that they have produced is the result of fruitful and generous cooperation. Greczynski is an astute director. The project is based on issues that are of consequence to these people in this context, and he has nurtured an open atmosphere that encourages production and experimentation. The framework that he has set up uses the architecture itself to provide a focus for the work. The Living Museum is located on the second floor of an abandoned building there that had housed cooking and dining facilities. It consists of a series of large and small rooms and a caged corridor overlooking the former kitchen, in a square configuration that wraps around a large central atrium. The four corner rooms each have a theme—hospital, church, workplace, and home—and the building's neglected, discarded contents (such as old chairs, wooden pallets, etc.) are frequently incorporated into the art. Greczynski's own drawings of forms and figures in constraint are interlocutors throughout the rooms and hallways.

Like any other large group exhibition, the works of each individual are distinguishable in the overall project. Some artists work with geometry, color, and abstract systems; others have created paintings and objects with convoluted narratives that are enriched with biographically inspired notations. The work is often intelligent and occasionally joyful. None of it is primitive or chaotic, nor is it bizarre and extraordinary in ways that our preconceptions and prejudices might lead us to believe. The strongest and most persistent quality is a sense of urgency, most noticeable in the volume of production and in a certain unflappable focus, but it is never desperate.

“Battlefields” is not a therapeutic strategy but rather a hothouse of discovery in which cultural ideas and perceptions are destabilized for artists and viewers. It communicates an idea about the nature and condition of art—where and how it happens, who makes it, and what these things have to do with significance. There are differences between the sane and the insane, and between the trained and the self-taught artist, but they are not what we might expect. Although the project does provide an important and impassioned social service, it is first of all a direct and aggressive critique of the safe and sane limits of a world of art that inculcates conformity and practiced, premeditated craziness.

Patricia C. Phillips