Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

Spatial fluidities

Bechtle's depictions of the Bay Area are highly attentive to the particularities of specific places, but also offer a continuum from city to suburb, reminding the viewer of the fluidity of living and social spaces. The works share subject matter: cars, streets and residential architecture are the supreme constants. While public thinking has often focused on the disparities between urban and suburban life, Bechtle presents them as overlapping environments, showing viewers the purely residential in the city or architectural density in the suburbs. Though there are distinctions between the San Francisco and East Bay paintings pavement and hills dominate the former's topography, in a manner specific to the city's famous geography the spaces are fluid. This implied interdependency between city and suburb is an important indicator of the complex, multiform rearrangements of post-war American demographics an era that includes not only urban decline and suburban dispersion but also gentrification and 'domestication' of city centres. 
Bechtle's artworks allow the viewer to track and contemplate physical and social associations in a range of locales. In his pictures of Oakland, Berkeley, Albany, Alameda or San Francisco there is often continuity rather than rupture. Works like California Gardens – Oakland Houses (1975), San Francisco Cadillac (1975) and Berkeley Stucco (1977) feel completely of a piece, exploring the absorptive textures of California stucco and the play of light and shadow across its surfaces. Stucco, of course, is a common sight in warm climates – its naturally insulating properties help keep interiors cool–and thus the images do not belie location completely. But they do evidence consistencies of living spaces among cities often considered quite disparate. San Francisco appears entirely residential, while neither of the other works engages the kind of radicalism strongly associated with these locales during the 1960s and 1970s. Here there are no evident traces of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement or Oakland's Black Panther Party, but rather the environs of what has been pejoratively described as the 'silent middle'.
Bechtle's San Francisco images almost always depict areas of the city that are residential rather than commercial or landmark centred. Cars, the artist's first and most famous subject, still appear in most every artwork, though the compositions are often expanded laterally, making the vehicles an element of the larger landscape rather than portrait-like focal points. Foregoing downtowns or other hubs of urban commerce and tourist destinations, the artist tends to spaces strikingly akin to those he painted in the East Bay: quiet neighbourhoods filled with row houses and mostly empty streets. San Francisco's hilly terrain shifts the depicted topography, but the way Bechtle addresses these vertiginous inclines is consistent with his overarching disinclination toward the overtly dramatic in favour of the subtle spatiality of the everyday. As French sociologist Henri Lefebvre argues, this everyday – i.e. that which lies outside specialized activities and encapsulates both the 'little, chance events' and the 'infinitely complex social event' – is a product of modern urbanization, the era in which society's existence becomes ordered and repetitive, and thus generates quantifiable routines and the visibly commonplace. Yet, for both Lefebvre and Bechtle, the urban everyday is not limited to traditional city cores. Just as America witnessed a post-war explosion of ex-urban development, France likewise wrestled with appropriate architectural models for new industries and a rapidly growing population in peripheral locations; Lefebvre was highly attentive to such spatial expansions. Likewise, in Bechtle's paintings the quality of continuity is paramount, signifying not only the existence of mass-produced housing within an urban centre, but the ways in which twentieth-century development increasingly blurred the lines of demographic categories and dislodged old visual landscape paradigms.  
My interpretations of the artist's works thus follow the example of recent re-evaluations of the citysuburb relationship that prioritize correspondences and flexibility across spatial categories. For example, urban planning historian Alan Mace asserts that, 'in an increasingly urban world where cities are, at least in some respects, borderless we need to hold on to the role of the suburb not as apart from the city but as a part of a wider urban canvas and the changes happening across it'. Mace’s relational sense of place is, in fact, directly indebted to Lefebvre’s argument that the borders of the contemporary city are highly permeable. To refer to this current complex of relations, Lefebvre supplants the limited notion of the 'city' with the larger framework of the 'urban', and thus promotes a more inclusive approach to the study of modern everyday life. Mace and Lefebvre do not discard the significance of the central city, but suggest that economic influences drive both 'concurrent dispersal and centralisation of employment and the built form', resulting in a state where suburbia and centralization are bedfellows rather than opposed forces.
Also underlying my arguments are Lefebvre’s foundational theories of space, first put forth in The Production of Space. The study quashes common notions of space as simply an empty container to be filled with the physical or cultural, and instead asserts its status as a social construction and essential means of production, power and control. Lefebvre’s model involves a now well-referenced triad composed of 'spatial practice', 'representations of space' and 'representational spaces'.  As Rob Shields contends, Lefebvre’s conception of perçu-conçu-veçu elements reveals 'that the system of space is not just spatial practice, in the sense of its social construction, but equally the representations of it and discourses about it'. Representational spaces show space as 'directly lived through its associated images and symbols'; according to Lefebvre they are a project of 'some artists and perhaps those, such as a few writers and philosophers, who describe and aspire to do no more than describe', but also 'the space which the imagination seeks to change and appropriate'. Bechtle’s works operate precisely within this dialectic, transcribing the surrounding environment with photographic realism, but also adapting its forms through subtle painterly means. The painter’s ordinary scenes and settings thus help elucidate the power of contemporary vernacular spaces in order for viewers to understand their construction and import.

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