San Francisco

Robert Bechtle

Anglim Gilbert Gallery

Robert Bechtle’s Photorealistic paintings from the late ’60s quickly became classics of the genre, taking the banal icons of suburbia—American cars parked in the sloping sunbaked driveways of flat-fronted tract homes—as their subject. Bechtle has clung to the practice and theme ever since, working exclusively from daylight snapshots as the source for his images of ordinary afternoons in California neighborhoods. Even so, the artist has repeatedly burrowed in and mastered technical challenges while infusing his paintings and drawings with subtle stylistic innovations.

Bechtle’s exhibition of thirteen recent charcoal drawings found his work at a point of renewed relevance. Artists like Jeff Koons and Ron Mueck are revisiting Photorealism at the same time that Bechtle is making a refreshing shift to a darker tone, exploring a changed quality of light. Although his lonely subdivision settings remain the same, this series is his first to feature night scenes: a somber selection of residential facades, empty street corners, and seemingly abandoned vehicles. While the artist has consistently used snapshots as blueprints for his pictures, for these night scenes he had to improvise the effect of fading light, something he found the camera couldn’t adequately capture. Bechtle manages quite well; his drawings display a full range of twilight tones and exude a gentle insistence that comes from the artist’s unerring focus.

A downbeat aura pervades the drawings. Nearly all the works are made on paper tinted blue, gray, or light brown, which adds to the thick atmosphere. Along with tackling the formal challenge of conveying night, Bechtle, now seventy, seems to be thinking as deeply about mortality as about the stucco crumble of suburban blight. The automobiles of his earlier work, gleaming, waxed, and polished in daylight, are now draped in fraying car covers and shadows. The dented, outmoded, and oversized luxury vehicle in Covered Car—Missouri Street, 2001, faces the elements under a cover resembling a tattered shroud with ripped tendrils drooping to the asphalt. (The fabric has the folds of an old master still life, but stained with gasoline.) In Covered Car—Cambridge, 2002, a chilly layer of snow blankets the vehicle. The Massachusetts setting is unlikely for this emphatically West Coast artist whose approach fits into a regional interest that includes the cheerful Bay Area visions of Wayne Thiebaud and Henry Wessel. Still, Bechtle’s poetic, rueful focus on the architecture of the American middle class seems to dovetail with that of a crop of young Bay Area photographers, the most prominent being Todd Hido, whose eerie night shots of single-family dwellings possess a similar cul-de-sac melancholy.

The most salient tone of these drawings, however, is of ghostly mystery. In Crossing Arkansas—Night, 2001, a seemingly sleepwalking figure wearing what looks like a hospital gown is poised in the middle of a crosswalk. There’s another kind of in-between feeling to Texas Street House, 2000, the show’s darkest image, in which a thicket of shrubbery blends into the night like a misty textural cloud that obscures the building’s exterior. It’s difficult to see the building, as the motion sensors haven’t triggered the security lights, yet Bechtle’s command of that darkness is sublime, a skill with which he hauntingly depicts the decline of another kind of Western civilization.

Glen Helfand