Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

'The urban fabric grows'

Many urban theorists and planners of the post-war period have held forth on how the city, suburb, town and country should look. Likewise, a proliferation of neologisms and prefixes – fringe, edge, ex-urban, boomburg, Californication, Manhattanization, smart/mega/shrinking cities and so on – has attempted to grapple with these environmental shifts, to coerce their unstable forms into stable linguistic signifiers. In an interview with curator Michael Auping from 2004, Bechtle ruminates on these semantic difficulties: 
I suppose 'suburb' is a kind of generic that covers a good deal of ground. In my case, some of the images are close to the city. Some are a bit farther out… You could probably say I’m trying to locate them myself. It’s where a lot of people live – somewhere between the city and somewhere else. I guess it’s the suburbs. I’m not sure I know exactly what the suburbs are.  
The suburban indeterminacy Bechtle articulates initially sounds strange – the word’s clear etymology and pop culture usage seem to constitute a well-defined type of built environment. Adding to the confusion are other instances where he readily employs the term: in a profile from just a few years prior, the artist describes his work as in part, ‘about American vernacular suburban culture'. The disparity between these comments may seem to imply a shift in thinking, though in all likelihood it is simply evidence of the artist's penchant for slight elusiveness in discussions of his painting subjects. As he often indicates, Bechtle courts interpretive openness – a state that allows the works to be read at once as nostalgic paeans to California living, formal studies of ordered environments and widely accessible meditations on common American environments. Ultimately, Bechtle’s comments about suburban indeterminacy allude to more than lexical confusion. Indeed, suburbia is one of the most fraught terms in cultural and architectural discourse, a battle forcefully played out in urban studies and American literature over the past several decades. The artist's disinclination to describe suburbia as a fixed form and willingness to push beyond such categories on the canvas evince a desire to look past old architectural typologies and disputes to a renewed vision of the built environment. In this way the viewer is encouraged to encounter his works with fresh eyes – to take the time to apprehend the social and formal possibilities of familiar subjects. 
This blurring and blending of environmental form return us to Lefebvre’s observations on urban space. Lefebvre’s work The Urban Revolution, though less frequently cited than The Production of Space or The Critique of Everyday Life, is notable for its perspicacious view of so-called suburban sprawl. Rather than insisting on discrete boundaries for contemporary spatial forms, he argues that mankind has become thoroughly urbanized, not just in its architectural developments but in the totality of its culture: 
The urban fabric grows, extends its borders, corrodes the residue of agrarian life. This expression, 'urban fabric', does not narrowly define the built world of cities but all manifestations of the city over the country. In this sense, a vacation home, a highway, a supermarket in the countryside are all part of the urban fabric. Of varying density, thickness, and activity, the only regions untouched by it are those that are stagnant or dying, those that are given over to 'nature'.
Writing in 1970, Lefebvre's perspective on the dawning of global urbanization anticipates the flood of urban theory devoted to the spatial and economic confluences of post-industrial society from the past several decades. Its sense of possibility and pitfalls constitutes a more radical account than the abiding fear of rampant suburbanization, which often holds up traditional urban density as a bastion of cultural reserve. Bechtle's paintings are obviously less polemical than Lefebvre's writings, but share the impulse of documenting 'problematic' overlaps and turning to lived experience as an untapped repository of spatial meaning. His works place audiences in the midst of environmental friction zones to observe pivotal markers of the everyday, revealing how familiar places are not simply confined by the cloning impulse of the suburban-esque, but rather informed by fluidities often unrecognized.

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