Pablo Bronstein’s New Design for the Treatment of Walls for the Display of a Painting in Oils (2009), with its gleefully archaic title, is comprised of two works that pose as a mysterious pair of relics. The smaller painting, in an ornate gilt frame, takes the form of a capriccio: an artistic conceit popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, which places architectural features in fantastical combination for pure atmospheric and stylistic pleasure. Painted in the antiqued tones of a hand-coloured engraving, a Mediterranean scene of curious archaeological forms is brought forth. Tiny robed figures walk as if in pensive discussion amid a grand, ruined temple, complete with overgrown columns and a statue in an alcove; in the background is a further colonnade that could be the remains of arena walls or a viaduct, with picturesque trees framing a vista of sea and sky. The larger work, in sepia ink on a cream paper ground, imitates a technical architectural drawing: the design seems to be for the elaborate ornamentation of a high interior wall, with cleanly illustrated coffering, roundels, panels, fascias and baroque sculptural details. To the wall’s lower left, displayed in a semicircular niche in front of a fringed curtain, can be seen a tiny reproduction of the ‘painting in oils’ in question – the very capriccio we see in front of us.
This self-contained genre game adds a further level of fantasy to the enigmatic capriccio, and is typical of Bronstein’s dreamlike architectural fictions. He imbues the precise 18th century illustrational style of Piranesi or Canaletto with an edge of playful, oneiric surrealism, and probes the power invested in our built environments: how are empires, ideas, and ideologies embedded in these edifices of civic grandeur? How do we approach an image like this, with its fabricated air of museological authority? The overt classicism of the present work reflects a specific concern of the artist. ‘I am particularly interested in the image of the public square, or piazza, as a symbol of democracy and citizenship. Because classicism is historically associated with democracy and public ownership of space or a building, private developments utilize classicism in order to dissimulate the profit motivation underneath the development. Very often land that was once public is manipulated into private ownership, and the public is left unaware. The architectural language of publicness is very important in this coup. And these spaces, whether they be Paternoster Square in London, or the Winter Garden in the World Financial Center, are undeniably successful’ (P. Bronstein in T. Hull, ‘Interview with Pablo Bronstein,’ Museo Magazine, 2010 [http:/www.museomagazine.com/PABLO-BRONSTEIN]).
Rather than making a glib postmodern gesture, Bronstein is directly engaged with how architecture works for people, and how appearances and history can be manipulated to different ends. Indeed, the Argentine-born artist, who now lives in London, was briefly enrolled in architectural college before switching to fine art where he was freer to explore his vision. Also working in monumental sculpture and architecture-inspired performances that explore the ornate mannerisms of sprezzatura, he finds an imaginative joy and humanity in his melding of illusion and reality – there is a palpable sense of pleasure in the present work’s elegant conception. In New Design for the Treatment of Walls for the Display of a Painting in Oils, we are drawn irresistibly into Bronstein’s world of intrigue, structures and construction, in a time-bending pair of works that oscillate between past and present, imagination and history. As he explains, ‘a part of me wants these things to really exist. That has to be the case for the drawing to have any kind of vibrancy or the dance to give any kind of pleasure. You can lie, but it’s not about an infinity of postmodern mirrors, an endless recession of meaning and truth. It’s more about creating a sort of legitimate world that you can identify with’ (P. Bronstein, quoted in K. Bell, ‘In the Studio: Pablo Bronstein,’ Art in America, 2 February 2014).