Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

Photorealist San Francisco

This essay focuses on the Bay Area itself as aesthetic subject through the lens of Robert Bechtle's Photorealist paintings of San Francisco. Though a familiar term in contemporary art world parlance, historically Photorealism has been subject to both profound antipathy and neglect. Arriving in the mid 1960s and gaining considerable media attention by the late 1960s and early 1970s, the style was nearly uniformly dismissed as a weak descendent of Pop art. Though it shares with that earlier style reliance on appropriated imagery and dedication to the products of consumer culture, Photorealism is distinct in aesthetic means and cultural aims. If Pop weaves a playful dialectic of critique and exultation, Photorealism resolutely refuses such commentary, faithfully reproducing ordinary scenes and objects with a minimum of commentary and deeply mining the conventions of photographic vision to reinvigorate painterly practice. Early critics perceived Photorealism as an overly slick, populist appeal–a retrograde kind of academic realism wedded to philistine iconography and slavishly dependent on its photographic support. For these detractors, Photorealism's reliance on photographic source material and un-ironic view of middle-class subjects rendered it abhorrently philistine, incapable of advancing art's conceptual or aesthetic boundaries. Even today, despite the popularity of photographic-based painting practices across the global scene, Photorealism has yet to receive its full historical due. 

This piece examines Bechtle's work in the context of defining changes in the postwar landscape, contra the historic assumption of Photorealism's social irrelevance. As Eva Respini has observed, photography and the American West came of age simultaneously, providing a documentary accompaniment to geographic exploration and exploitation, and a recorded image to project potent ideals of national identity. Bechtle's Photorealism both draws on and reformulates this rich photographic legacy, while concurrently negotiating the traditions of American modernist and local figurative painting. Bechtle's sustained attention to the everyday reflects the cultural impact of transformations in the built environment and middle-class lifestyles. He paints the city and suburbs not simply to record ordinary lives and architectural structures, but to explore how a hybrid artistic process can yield new visual understandings of changing spatial alignments in the American landscape. 

This page has tags: