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 suburban-urban continuity but forego the hyper-charged rhetoric of much period cultural commentary. The artist has made numerous images of the neighborhood, frequently honing in on the area's architectural regularity. The most striking example of this geographic group is Sunset Intersection–40th and Vicente. The painting's structure, which empties the center 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 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 slight differences in the shape, color, 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 Doelger 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. (Similar lighting effects appear in Pirkle Jones's 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, color, 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 and atmospheric experience. Here seeing yields physical comprehension, offering not only a view of the under-remarked residential Sunset, but also a vibrant sense of how these development patterns inform urban experiences. 

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