Pablo Bronstein’s work takes architecture as its subject matter, but treats it with a willful irreverence. In recent years the artist has expanded his focus to include performance – where elaborately choreographed movements, gestures or postures align themselves with architectural ornamentation; however, A is Building, B is Architecture, the first survey of the Argentinian-born London-based artist, centres on works on paper and a single large sculptural intervention, over two floors of the Centre d’Art Contemporain’s industrial space.
Drawing is the backbone of Bronstein’s practice, or perhaps, rather, its central nervous system. Architectural edifices or monuments – from Palladian to Baroque to Neo-Classical to Postmodern – are rendered intricately in pen and ink and so closely resemble the originals they imitate that at a glance they may easily be taken for the genuine article. Their materiality, which seems to border on the fetishistic (dip pen and ink on handmade paper in bombastic antique frames), along with their unbridled ornamentation, makes them singularly unfashionable species of contemporary art. Here, a selection of more than 30 drawings from 2005 to 2013 is hung in loosely thematic groupings rather than chronologically, in an elegant and impressive array.
An early work from 2006 sums up both the method and aim of Bronstein’s approach. City Monument with Organ Motif (2006) is an ink and gouache drawing in which a forbidding block-like building takes up almost the entirety of a neo-classical piazza, but an ornamentally framed aperture in its flat façade reveals the pipes of an organ concealed within. This conceptual non sequitur, which ruptures the placid civic architecture with a fantastically imagined interior, acts like a literal picturing of the convolute of real and imaginary seen throughout Bronstein’s drawings. Take his vision of the wooden scaffolding and teams of harnessed horses dragging Christopher Wren’s 17th century monument to its new location (Relocation of Temple Bar, 2009), or the opulence and absurdity of Design and Construction for a Magnificent Baldachin erected in celebration over Stone-Age ruins erroneously thought to be the Remains of the House of Adam, or, the First Building on Earth (2013), whose title says it all. These drawings do not represent genuine architecture or events so much as perform a decadently imaginative version of it, cut loose from mundane municipal needs or historical facticity. While picturing the baroque, they seem to enact it: the illustration of ornament becomes a manically self-generating activity, with ever more elaborate frames within frames or decoration of decorative elements. Though escapist fantasies on one level, these works are rooted in a relentless probing of the architectural realities that determine our everyday urban surroundings. What is our relation to these buildings, or to the history they represent; what is our responsibility towards them, and how do they affect us?
The mistaking of old-fashioned appearance for nostalgia itself, or confusing the imitation for the real thing, is intrinsic to Bronstein’s method, which is in fact more aligned with appropriation or issues of copy and original than it may seem. The quasi-architectural intervention on the lower floor of the exhibition further probes the question of originality. A pair of massive rectangular structures fill almost the entire floor. These bulky white-painted forms, plain save for an over-dimensional cornice that frames their upper walls, stand side by side a few feet apart, each with a centrally placed doorway. On entering you see the reverse side of the structure, raw plywood and two-by-fours. With their odd proportions – too low and too wide – and the unbalanced relation of ornament to simplicity, plus the bald revelation of their prop-like construction, these sculpture/building hybrids operate like a sketch in three dimensions. Unlike the laboured and highly polished drawings on the floor above, they seem to visualize an idea as a single gesture. A strange, dumb pair of objects, they do not so much articulate the space as consume it, turning the empty space of the gallery into a useless void. The riddle of its title, meanwhile, is a clue to the show itself: ‘A is Building, B is architecture.’ Where does building end and architecture begin?