Pablo Bronstein

Pablo Bronstein’s enticing, elaborately detailed ink, gouache, and pencil drawings make no apology for the machismo which, in the longgone ’80s, hideously spliced together retrograde postmodernism with Baroque and neoclassical architecture. His is a pastiche of towering, overdecorated obelisks; vast, giant Corinthian colonnades; tall, endlessly spurting fountains. What is it with architects and their protrusions anyway? “If phallic symbols could fly, this place would be an airport,” as Mike Kelley might say. Colluding with the ’80s superstar architects like Michael Graves (now designing Disney hotels) were the real-estate developers, constructing corporate headquarters resplendent with salmon pink pillars and neo-Egyptian detailing; nostalgic royals like Prince Charles pining for an old-fashioned regal city to rule over; and the architecture schools, encouraging students like myself to acquaint themselves with the lost arts of perspective, shade, and shadow, and the dramatic rendering of tempestlike clouds swarming overhead. Just before CAD and CATIA took over and architecture students could finally toss out those diabolical Rotring ink pens, armies of overworked students slavishly copied architects like Leon Krier in the hopes of becoming Leon Battista Alberti. Mercifully, the moment passed; computer suites replaced drawing tables and everyone went back to the twentieth century for one last crack at modernism.

Bronstein excavates this embarrassing, testosterone-laden moment in recent cultural history with an acute, almost vicious sense of observation. His hybrid drawings get exactly right that particular, Aldo Rossian shade of pretentious yellow; the awful, cookie-cutter triangles posing as pediments over doorways; the whole self-conscious kitsch pomposity of it all. Yet he shares, without irony, the period’s genuine love for the magnificence of eighteenth-century architectural drawings, which, crossed with po-mo fantasies, he executes with lavish skill. Reversing the conventional hierarchy, his three-dimensional built works (the installation Doorway in the Style of James Stirling, 2006, basically a door in the guise of an erect penis—or is it just me?) act as studies for his far more developed works on paper. Using real pencil and ink on fancy parchment, Bronstein’s idealized piazzas, baldachins, and grottoes deliver the same veneration for detail and precision as renderings by genuine Enlightenment-era draftsmen. Indeed, Bronstein does not depict churches or aristocratic residences but secular monuments: opera houses, city squares, museums. The ruling religion here is the architecture itself, concealing its ruthlessly authoritarian politics behind cornices, balustrades, and swirls. These are cities built for modern tyrants—perfect, that is, for Thatcherite Britain and Reaganite America.

While another Brit of a previous generation, Liam Gillick, looks at the interstices between architecture, behavior, and capitalism in the modernist avant-gardes, Bronstein shifts his sights to the overlooked decade in which he grew up. Bronstein speaks of his varying drawing styles not just as imitating but as performing the style of his source architects: drawing as a reenactment of the past, whether twenty years ago or 250. His resulting cross-historical urban idealizations become stand-ins for the architect’s perpetual, dreamy dissatisfaction, and architectural drawings become a kind of elaborate form of complaint: “Oh, if only things were different!” Occupying the empty piazzas are the ghosts of these forlorn architects, with their vast personal ambition and their illusions about life. Bronstein reveals their structural “solutions” as just another form of escape, barely different from opium, except that sometimes people have to live in their aftermath.

Gilda Williams