Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

The suburban city

Bechtle's sense of hometown familiarity in the Sunset is likewise a measure of this fluid construction impulse. His works tap into the suburbanurban continuity but forgo the hyper-charged rhetoric of much period cultural commentary. The artist has made numerous images of the neighbourhood, frequently honing in on the area's architectural regularity. Doelger and his contemporaries' massive building initiative generated a rhythmic built environment: the neighbourhood's historic continuity and proportional regularity is punctuated by the variable forms of its myriad house styles. Responding to this spatial effect, Bechtle's paintings of the Sunset are often angled to provide a long view down a single street – a strategy that showcases the architecture to great advantage, allowing the viewer to absorb a span of 10, 15 or 20 homes in the scope of a single artwork. These works often favor the cumulative impact of larger swaths of development over unique details, and thus provide a distinct sense of the area's overwhelmingly residential flavor – street after street of single-family homes, each distinguished by different frontages. One early district resident, Edythe Newman, recalls the centrality of these cosmetic additions to everyday life: 'All the houses looked the same. The only way we could tell ours was to count from the corner. Once the blue trim we had chosen was painted on the outside, we knew which house was ours.'
The most striking example of this geographic group of artworks is Sunset Intersection – 40th and Vicente (1989). The painting's structure, which empties the centre of the composition, pushes the row houses toward the upper edge of the canvas. This formal decision, along with the deployment of the road's curved incline, the (likely) use of a long-focus lens and the cropping of the right side of the source photograph, visually compresses the built environment. Thus the already closely aligned homes become an exceedingly tight stack of rooftops and chimneys. In the foreground, the angled view of the street's flat portion reveals the homes' balanced replication and variation, each proportionally equal but with modest variations in the shape, colour and façade. 
Curiously, this embrace of grid regularity is coupled with one of Bechtle's most fanciful departures from his source photograph: the dramatically darkened sky encroaching from the left. The invented weather, however, is not an attempt to balance the 'monotony' of the row houses with a foreboding sky, but rather an art historical allusion. According to Bechtle the choice was inspired by Ambrogio Lorenzetti's image of a city set against a dark sky in his early Renaissance fresco, Allegories of Good and Bad Government (1338-40)Moreover, the dark sky is intended to conjure some locational specificity: as Bechtle notes, these lighting conditions occasionally appear as part of the city's famed, thick fog banks – a common atmospheric condition in this ocean-side district. (Similar lighting effects appear in Pirkle Jones' photograph of the Sunset from 1951.) Bechtle's painting is a tautly configured study of light and shape, using the built environment to experiment with properties of surface, shadow, colour and brushwork. But the work is also a visual measure of architectural planning; both the perspectival compression and the palette generate subtle indications of spatial experience. Here, seeing yields physical comprehension, offering not only a view of the underremarked residential Sunset, but also a vibrant sense of how these development patterns inform urban experiences.

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