Updated: 8/16/15; 18:58:52

pedantic nuthatch
Life in a Northern Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C. B.M.A.T.C., and Etruscan typewriter erasers. Blogged by David Gorsline.

Monday, 20 March 2006

The Corcoran Gallery of Art is exhibiting a retrospective of the works of Californian Robert Bechtle. Bechtle can be pigeonholed into the Photorealist school of painting—early in his career he began projecting photographic slides onto the large-scale canvases that he was painting—but there is a slight softness in his work that he doesn't share with artists like Richard Estes. As Charles Ray says in a catalog essay, he lacks "the surface glamour and optical dazzle" of other practitioners. Bechtle's effects with reflections are subtler, sometimes even murky, as in Portero Table (1994).

Instead, what he's usually going for are stunning yet understated geometrical effects. Bechtle acknowledges the influence of Richard Diebenkorn and a common interest in "strange interlockings of diagonals, edges." This is particularly noticeable in '67 Chrysler (1973), one of his large portraits of mundane American automobiles parked in a driveway or on the street. By carefully composing, selecting, and cropping the photographic image of a streetside 4-door, Bechtle divides the canvas with two strong verticals, dividing it into a triptych—an echo of his work from the 1960s that reliaced on multiple canvas panels. The vertical on the right side of the painting, reading top to bottom, consists of the corner of a house, the edge of a fence, a handrail (a tricky bit of perspective there), the B-pillar of the Chrysler, the seam of the doors, and a wiggly crack in the foreground pavement.

Indeed, along with a fondness for the flat, staring white sun on a stucco wall, the painter shows a weakness for the muted shadings of oil stains and skidmarks on asphalt.

Although working literally from photographs, Bechtle edits out details that don't suit his compositional purposes. Thus we see, in a comparison of the photographic source for '63 Bel Air (1973) and the finished painting, he has removed shrubbery and a Christmas decoration, but has retained "distracting" electrical lines entering the frame from above, as well as the identifiability of the car's license plate number. We also see in a work from the 1990s that he has combined two exposures of an interior scene so that the details of the room are legible (a self-portrait on a couch) along with the view through the sun-shot window (a Volvo positioned at a rakish angle).

Bechtle's other great subject is the casual snapshot of a suburban family group. Even though we can read a story and relationships in these paintings, nevertheless the strongest element often is the geometry, as in the displaced webbing of a piece of lawn furniture in Watsonville Chairs (1976).

Other, later works in the exhibition suggest the mechanical architecture of Charles Sheeler (Twentieth and Texas [1995]), the melancholy sidelong light of Edward Hopper, and nineteenth-century impressionism, particularly another view of the same intersection that is shot through with patches of peach and azure color (Texas Street Intersection [2000]).

posted: 12:11:23 PM  

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