Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

Intersections and repetitions

Bechtle has painted numerous parts of Potrero Hill's residences, though one intersection in particular, at Arkansas and Twentieth Streets, has consistently held his attention. The artist explains its appeal:
These are houses that were all built at the same time, so there is a kind of uniformity to them that I find, you know, sort of fascinating. The places I have photographed in the neighborhood tend to be places where that sort of thing exists. You know, there are lots of places in the neighborhood where the houses are all from various times and styles plopped right next to each other. And I always avoid those.
As he indicates, the regularity of this built environment encourages explorations of composition, light, colour and medium. Such formal emphasis was a formative part of Bechtle's development, particularly as embodied in the exemplar of Bay Area Figurative painters Richard Diebenkorn, David Park and Elmer Bischoff. These local legends' integration of the figurative and the abstract provided a model for clarifying the structures of the Photorealist's information-dense source photographs. For Bechtle, Diebenkorn's work was paramount. Both Diebenkorn's landscapes and more abstract Ocean Park series communicate a distinct sense of surface relationships; Bechtle adapts these 'interlocking of diagonals' so that shapes and colours press back against the spatial recession of his photographic rendering  qualities evident in the patchwork sidewalks and variant window and garage geometries of the Twentieth and Arkansas works. There is also, as Bechtle's comments suggest, an architectural 'snapshot' effect in this locale, as the space captures a singular moment of the neighbourhood's development. Eschewing San Francisco's famed Victorians or neighbourhoods with eclectic conglomerations of architectural styles, the artist instead chooses blocks that exude visual and chronological uniformity – a quality with strong suburban resonance.
This consistency in turn serves as a springboard for formal experimentation. In the case of the Arkansas and Twentieth location, Bechtle has made over 20 works depicting this corner over the course of three decades. Many of these works are re-envisionings of the same source photograph, such as the oil painting, watercolour and charcoal works all titled Potrero Stroller – Crossing Arkansas Street (1988, 1989, 1989). As the medium shifts, so does the composition: the more intimate scale of the watercolour and drawing are echoed in a cropping of the original painting, tightening in on the pedestrian while maintaining the focal length of the source photograph. Collectively, the multiform arrangements yield a distinctly spatio-temporal effect. Just as the works' cropping implies, the pedestrian's movement and the row houses' ascent continue out of frame, the repeated re-staging of this moment is an index of routine, everyday journeys. Likewise, the red car pictured in the Potrero Stroller works reappears in precisely the same spot in Potrero Intersection – 20th and Arkansas (1990): the perspective has shifted to the left, providing something akin to a preceding film still in a camera-pan view of the neighbourhood. The still-frame staging is symbiotic with the Potrero environment, its steep slopes guiding the eye out above (or below, depending on one's orientation) the current location and thus setting one's vision into motion. Bechtle's strategies of excision, repetition and overlap generate compositions that are at once sufficient as stand-alone images but also cumulatively profound as continuous portions of a larger environment.
Bechtle’s intensive focus on this small portion of San Francisco and its constitutive elements also recalls Kevin Lynch’s research on perception and navigation of the city. In his oft-cited work The Image of the City, Lynch argues for legibility – i.e. a landscape’s clarity for its users–as the determinant and most desirable quality of urban space. While Bechtle’s images do not advocate for a specific kind of city form, their incorporation of strong formal elements echoes Lynch’s proclamations about the value of urban visual clarity. Likewise, the artist’s Arkansas and Twentieth works collectively call to mind Lynch’s description of the city as a ‘temporal art’ always experienced in relational terms. Repeatedly examining the same intersection, the viewer becomes familiar with its architectural components and layout, and thus gains a sense of everyday spatial experience. The intersection itself can be classified according to Lynch’s city image elements: it is clearly a ‘path’, a channel of movement that is often the dominant element of the city image. The locale is potentially also a ‘node’, which Lynch defines as ‘strategic spots’ typically found at the convergence of paths. Nodes are the ‘intensive foci’ to and from which the individual is travelling – a quality illustrated by the artist’s own visits to the area featured in a short documentary segment from the local PBS arts programme SparkThe Potrero Hill paintings imply that even the seemingly most ordinary aspects of this locale merit intensive visual analysis, encouraging the viewer to follow Lynch’s example and ‘see the hidden forms in the vast sprawl of our cities'.

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