Several years ago, the artist Pablo Bronstein published a new edition of Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto, with a cover he had drawn by hand. Walpole, an 18th-century English aristocrat, is perhaps best known for his country estate Strawberry Hill, which is credited with beginning the Gothic Revival. In the main reception room, visitors admired elaborate fan vaulting, copied from Henry VII’s Chapel at Westminster Abbey—only at Strawberry Hill, it was made of papier-mâché. It was the kind of stagecraft that undoubtedly attracted Bronstein to Walpole. Just like his subject, Bronstein prizes artifice, and the meaning it can bring to his work.
Bronstein was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1977 and moved with his family to suburban London at the age of four. When he finished high school, he enrolled in an architecture program—and lasted three weeks. “Having to take courses in structural loads, and be in the same class as a bunch of competitive straight men with Rotrings [technical pens] and books on Kahn, made me jump ship to art school pretty quickly,” he says now.
Bronstein earned degrees at the Slade School of Fine Art and then Goldsmiths, University of London, but he never relinquished his interest in architecture. By the mid-2000s, he was staging performance works and improving his draftsmanship through assiduous practice. It paid off, as his 2008 book, A Guide to Postmodern Architecture in London, makes clear. The Romantic drawings in that book conjure London icons of the go-go Thatcher years—Cesar Pelli’s Canary Wharf, James Stirling’s Clore Gallery at the Tate Britain—transplanted into alien settings and crumbling into Piranesian decay. Postmodern Architecture revealed Bronstein’s extremely well-stocked historical imagination and complicated mix of fantasy and irony.
Irony can be bought cheaply, through obvious juxtaposition. What Bronstein pulls off is trickier: He dares us to find where irony ends and sincerity begins. The drawing “Relocation of Temple Bar” (2009) imagines a mock-heroic history for the London landmark designed by Christopher Wren. A team of horses attempts to pull the massive stone gate, clad in suspiciously elaborate scaffolding, across a desert.
The original gate was, in fact, dismantled in the 1870s, rebuilt outside of London, and then dismantled, moved and rebuilt again at a different city site—the newly redeveloped Paternoster Square—in 2003. Presenting the Temple Bar like an Egyptian obelisk being hauled away by a conquering army, Bronstein questions both its authenticity and the power of those who would lay claim to it. But he invites us all the same to admire its proportions, its scale (which he exaggerates), and even the prettified scaffolding around it.
Likewise, “Tiepolo’s Triumph of Marius Entering the Metropolitan Museum of Art” depicts a gigantic pulley moving an absurdly large Old Master painting into the Met, a crowd of Lilliputians at its base. The technical brilliance of the drawing suggests a deep engagement with the subject that lurks behind—or beneath—its playful critique of the museum’s cultural authority. “There is a role-playing element to the drawings, in which I draw as if I were an architect talking to a king, or a developer, or as if the building were already in existence and needed to be depicted either ruined, or new,” Bronstein tells me.
Even if he were to inhabit the role of an architect designing a tyrant’s palace, Bronstein adds, he wouldn’t be able to take a clear-cut moral stance. “I [would] take pleasure in designing the palace, and part of the value of the artwork to the viewer is the technical qualities of the drawing.” Making us complicit in that pleasure is what Bronstein does, whatever questions about history, power, and taste that his work may pose.
Notions of taste may seem to have died out with chintz drawing rooms, but Bronstein reminds us that the contemporary art world is ruled by its own norms of white walls and clean lines—and they are no less strict for being considered avant-garde. In contrast, Bronstein’s love of the Baroque, his joy in decorative profusion, starts to seem downright radical. He has published one book of designs for ornamental doorways and another of gilded keyholes. If ornament is crime, then Bronstein is an outlaw.
“I think that the art and architecture audiences that want something to look ‘contemporary’ are very often the most conservative and most superficial,” Bronstein says. “They are usually audiences that cannot judge something other than by a very quick visual reading.” That said, there are advantages to going against the grain. “I have been lucky that my aesthetic … [is] a different aesthetic to the mainstream, and so has perhaps more recognizability than other works.”
Bronstein’s performance pieces have a dislocating effect similar to that of his drawings. What seems more contemporary than performance art? And yet his mannered works evoke the early ballet and opera. In his recent show at REDCAT in Los Angeles, “Enlightenment Discourse on the Origins of Architecture,” a performer manipulated oversized Georgian-style furniture, turning a cabinet, dressers, and chairs into a stylized cityscape.
For 2011’s “Tragic Stage,” part of the exhibition “Sketches for Regency Living” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, Bronstein put dancers in front of a canvas of a Regency mega-terrace, its stark, identical bays marching across the wall. Wearing costumes rich in color and architectural ornament, the dancers animated the façade while drawing viewers’ attention to its blank regularity.
Sometimes, Bronstein combines performance and architecture in three dimensions. Teatro Alessandro Scarlatti, built on the grounds of a museum near Zurich, is the world’s smallest opera house, seating five. It offers “a metaphor for how a building such as an opera house subdivides and categorizes its users,” Bronstein says. “Even in its minute scale, [it] had an entrance, designated level, and observation point for each type of participant within the spectacle—the musicians, the public, the singer. There is also the opportunity of listening to a piece of music in an isolated and very close way, which I find fascinating.”
The tiny opera house might be called a folly, but Bronstein is ambivalent about that word, because “very few follies become significant or serious.” Like Walpole, who used his “little play-thing house” to challenge the dominance of Palladianism, Bronstein affects levity with purpose.