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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Robert Bechtle

61 Pontiac, 1968-69, Robert Bechtle

Robert Bechtle
The word "ordinary" would seem to be an anathema to artists. Some might even term it an insult. Let me assure you, Robert Bechtle is not and ordinary artist. He's a photo-realist, which means his skill with a brush is anything but ordinary, placing him in the top one-percent of all painters in that respect. Photo-realism was a style which came and went in the 1970s. Bechtle is considered one of its first practitioners. But, as all such passing fascinations are prone to do, it lingered in the work of the best artists of its day. Robert Bechtle was born in 1932. He "came of age" as an artist in that era. But photo-realism is just a style, and perhaps a manner of painting. What an artist does with that style makes all the difference. Bechtle works in charcoal, oils, and watercolor (not an idea medium for a photo-realist). Dozens, perhaps hundreds of artists from that era dabbled in the style, as did I. Like myself, many still do. Most who still do are good, though perhaps in no way outstanding (I'll refrain from making a personal evaluation here). In Bechtle's case, the word "ordinary" applies to what he paints, not how.
34th Avenue, 1987, watercolor, Robert Bechtle
Almost without exception, photo-realists choose unusual, colorful, fascinating subjects for their paintings. Audrey Flack goes for vanitas still-lifes (09-04-11). Chuck Close did photo-realistic faces. Richard Estes paints cold, highly reflective, urban landscapes (06-13-13), Charles Bell paints round stuff and toys. But not Robert Bechtle, he paints just "ordinary" stuff. If you live in the San Francisco Bay area, you probably have faded old photos tucked away in an album or shoebox somewhere that look exactly like Robert Bechtle's paintings, which is where he's been known to scrounge his sources. Often, he even resists the urge to correct for things like the aging of color photographic dyes. If Bechtle has a favorite subject, it seems to be old automobiles, though not antique autos or classic cars,, parked in an ordinary manner in front of very ordinary buildings. Sometimes very ordinary people stand in stiffly ordinary poses in front, beside, or behind them.
Newsstands, Los Banon, 1973, Robert Bechtle.
Some wit dubbed this one, "Sarah Palin's Worst Nightmare." 
As photos, this ordinary stuff remains very ordinary. But when an artist deems them worthy of his or her time and effort to faithfully, meticulously reproduce them in paint, larger than life on canvas, the ordinary can become quite extraordinary. In general, modern art hates nostalgia. Even a hint of this noxious trait can be the death knell for a struggling artist. No doubt, Bechtle has tasted of that bitter brew during his long career dating back to the early 1960s. Yet he persisted, though his early work was more starkly present-day then. It's us who have aged and become nostalgic. Most ordinary artists would change with the times. Bechtle has also resisted that urge as well.
Pool House, 2008, Robert Bechtle
Bechtel admits initially being torn regarding the efficacy of working entirely from photographic sources. However, if one is bent on copying old photos, then doing so with a maximum of verisimilitude is the most artistically honest pursuit. Viewers often, at first glance (sometimes even second and third glance), mistake Bechtle's paintings as enlarged photos. His brushwork is all but invisible. There are the unmistakable compositional similarities to David Hockney, though Hockney is far-removed from a photo-realist. Bechtle's Pool House (above) bears an uncanny resemblance to Hockney's southern California abodes (09-27-11).

Santa Barbara Chairs, 1983, Robert Bechtle painting Robert Bechtel
Working from photos solves many vexing problems for artists; but they also present other problems. Parallax is one (distortion caused by a rectangular picture shot through a round lens). Bechtle corrects such obvious photographic shortcomings. What he does not correct is harsh sunlight, photographic color, inadvertent cropping, bland backgrounds, or random, snapshot-like compositions. Never does he feel the need to "fill up" empty spaces on his canvases simply in the name of making his paintings more than what they are (above). They are ordinary photos copied with extraordinary accuracy resulting in extraordinary paintings. There is no law which says an artist has to begin a painting with a pencil sketch. Bechtle prefers to start with a click of a camera shutter.

Agua Caliente Nova, 1975, Robert Bechtle


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