Robert Bechtle at Gladstone Gallery
January 22 to February 22, 2014
515 West 24th Street
New York, 212-206-9300
Photorealist painter Robert Bechtle’s source images are most likely not trending on Instagram. His trademark subjects, when reviewed as a list, sound tearfully forgettable: parked cars, covered parked cars, middle class suburban houses, trees, peopleless streets. Yet, he conjures something moving and miraculous with these ascetic ingredients. The watercolor Six Cars on 20th Street (2007) centers on a beige, empty road that fills the picture to the brim, save for a small glimpse of blue sky in the corner. A few precisely placed, transparent cars are enjoying small patches of shade, leisurely anchored to San Francisco’s hilly street as if casually immune to gravity. It feels as if the very Californian sun it portrays dried off the paint. Bechtle’s nonfiction of the most overlooked moments in life can send viewers to the verge of panic about becoming enthralled by the beauty of sheer banal insignificance.
Bechtle’s current exhibition at Gladstone Gallery provides a much-needed respite in a world serving up artworks constantly growing bigger, louder, and more ingratiating. The artist himself sheepishly peers out from one of the few oil paintings in the show, Bob’s Sebring (2011), next to a silver convertible a bit too snazzy for his outfit, in front of a square garage. Born in California in 1937, Robert Bechtle seems to have arrived at his minimal subjects and technique after carefully rejecting all that was cool. He was exposed to German art while serving as an army private there in the 1950s, and enjoyed Pop art shows at Sidney Janis Gallery in New York in 1962. He purposefully avoided Richard Diebenkorn’s painting courses while studying at the California College of Arts, in fear of becoming influenced by his contagious energy. After some short-lived trials, he found his long-term subject: keenly scrutinized painted portraits of everyday cars and empty streets, based on snapshots. The paintings are furnished from a Kodachrome, sun-bleached palette, and a seemingly interminable supply of time.
Most of the paintings in the show are based off of images taken in San Francisco and the Northern California suburbs in its vicinity, where the temperature dial is locked at 55 degrees and the sun’s simplifying rays expel clouds, distinguishable seasons, and palpable deadlines. The time of Clay Street, Alameda (2013) appears to be just past noon according to its telling, jewel-blue shadows. The supposed subject matter lingers at the edge of the well-measured composition, perfectly skewed to avoid approaching the edge of motion. Car-lined streets extend to the horizon as people patiently await the discovery of worthwhile destinations. Brief, poetic painterly details do not awaken their enervation; rhythmic telephone wires drape past the sky like garlands, and the unevenly trimmed canopies are feathered by brilliant numberless shades of green. A dirty, rectangular blotch in the middle of the street hides an attempt to restore something -– what sort of excitement could have possibly disturbed this neighborhood? Meanwhile, the still sunlight embalms the scene like room temperature formaldehyde, so clear it’s practically negligible. The photographic qualities of this work are apparent, but the shutter’s ability to capturing fleeting moments is irrelevant as time itself seems to be immobile anyway.
For Bechtle, a stationary mobile car is a powerful symbol of ennui. The watercolor Covered Car on De Haro Street (2013) is accompanied by an almost identical charcoal incarnation, Covered Car on de Haro Street II, where every grain of paper is mobilized for expression. This miniature portrait of a parked car, humbly presented in a size befitting the deceptively minor subject, is possibly the most immediately arresting work in the show. In a view reminiscent of that from the spontaneous cropping by a surveillance camera, a shapely cluster of spectral yellow tarp covering a vehicle is suspended on a slanted street, triggering a gentle, engaging instability. There is something weighty and insouciantly sublime about this unmanned outline of a car and its Hopper-esque stillness. Momentarily, this effort to alleviate sun damage assumes the mysterious tick of a filled body bag, but imaginative viewers might be disappointed by its content: it is probably just another Sebring.print