Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

Exaggerated cityscapes

Two of Bechtle's contemporaries, Richard Estes and Wayne Thiebaud – artists with similar subjects and substantial shared aesthetic lineage – have utilized such San Franciscan familiar vistas. Thiebaud began painting his cityscapes in 1973; for many years, the artist owned a home near Bechtle in Potrero Hill. Thiebaud originally attempted to paint on site but was unsatisfied with the results. Subsequently, the works became composites; they mesh the structures of multiple drawings and the artist's spatial memories and improvisations. His synthetic compositions allow for juxtapositions of multiple perspectives, and aim to generate both corporeal and emotional experiences: 
Something to do with empathy, and drama, and the way [the multiple projective systems] gives you different kinds of caricature, space caricature or color caricature, or even where you push things further than a single projective system might let you. And in this way you are helped to get the feelings of things, the way things physically feel. 
Consequently, paintings like Twenty-Fourth Street Intersection (Twenty-Fourth Street Ridge) (1977) are distinctly different from Bechtle's images of the Potrero, in this case using a fabricated intersection to achieve an amplified sense of geographic experience. Thiebaud's enhanced topography creates a synesthetic fusion: the works convey gravitational pull and press the limits of flat canvas space through perspectival embellishment. Like his famed confection paintings, Thiebaud's city works also maintain a prominent sense of surface action, balancing the sense of precipitous descent with the weight of painterly facture and playful infusions of bright colour. 
Estes, the most well known of the original generation of Photorealist painters, is chiefly associated with New York cityscapes, though in recent years his scope has become international. His selected subjects have also shifted slightly: whereas the earlier paintings mostly avoid famous landmarks, chronicling the cluttered displays and busy façades of ordinary shops and multistorey city buildings, later works include such sites as the Guggenheim, Central Park, Times Square and the Brooklyn Bridge. Along with this shift in subject matter, the artist's panoramic inclinations have also increased. Though his hallmark reflective surfaces remain an integral part of many images, the sense of refraction carried to mise-en-abyme extremes is often replaced by an interest in wide-angle views. 
Estes' View from Twin Peaks (1990) takes as its subject a pair of tall peaks near the centre of San Francisco – a site that offers a 360-degree view of the city. The location is a prime stop for tourists; the painting thematizes this act of a viewing pilgrimage. Estes' panorama pictures not only San Francisco's skyline and its surrounding waters, but also the switchbacks of the access road and the 'vista point' parking lot, the latter sprinkled with visitors and merchants. The nearest figure is pictured in the midst of the quintessential tourist act – snapping a photograph of his companion seated in front of the scenic view. Here Estes' earlier complex reflective surfaces are replaced by reflexive acts of looking, encouraging awareness of the visual rituals of tourism. The expanded perspective's slight fisheye effect, the jutting form of both the city's peninsula and the viewing lookout and the juxtaposition of rolling hills and looping streets create intertwining curvatures and additionally heighten the work's spatial drama. At six feet across, the viewing experience is not unlike that of Muybridge's panorama: each project implies more than the eye can absorb in a single moment, joining large quantities of visual data in order to recreate the physical experience of such elevated perspectives. 
Estes aims to create a phenomenological, embodied sense of vision: 'When you look at a scene or an object you tend to scan it. Your eye travels around and over things. As your eyes move the vanishing point moves, so to have one vanishing point or perfect camera perspective is not realistic.' This approach suits spots such as Twin Peaks, where the elevation invites the eye to scan the landscape, but also necessarily makes his paintings akin to a time-lapse experience, and thus markedly different from Bechtle's tendency toward a more limited photographic field of view. Whereas Estes connotes the mobility of the human eye, Bechtle selects smaller frames, allowing multiple images of the Potrero environment to accrue collective impact. Like Thiebaud's images, Estes' paintings are highly synthetic; they assemble a multiplicity of perspectives to conjure a sense of the city rather than a direct transfer of its components. The differences between Bechtle's, Thiebaud's and Estes' cityscapes are constituted not merely by their chosen iconography, but also their fundamentally distinct ways of perceiving the city. Each is crafted to suit its particular environmental experience: Thiebaud's altered geography and colour choices generate a heightened sensation of San Francisco's rolling hills; Estes' slightly chaotic reflections and lateral condensation of multiple perspectives express city density or the saturation of tourist spots; and Bechtle's horizontally sliced inclines refigure verticality, communicating the spatial nuances of the urban residential without resorting to overly familiar views. For Bechtle, everydayness is paramount: his works renew city vision not by stressing San Francisco's already dramatic offerings, but by balancing specific urban elements – views up its inclines of irregular, paved terrain and stacked row houses – with the architectural regularities of residential neighbourhoods. Thus the city is distinct but not divorced from its Bay Area neighbours, blending life in the traditional metropolitan centre and its surrounding environs.

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