Bechtle: Everything and Nothing

In paintings such as
In paintings such as "News Stands," at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Robert Bechtle seeks to find out just "how much nothing" his works can hold. (Photos Copyright Robert Bechtle)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 10, 2006

The first impression one might take from Robert Bechtle's paintings -- on retrospective view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in a 96-work show that includes the contemporary realist's drawings, watercolors, notebook sketches and poker-faced source photographs of his family, friends and automobiles -- is of how empty they all seem. Despite bearing names like "Cookie Jar," " '62 Chevy," "Nancy Sitting," "Palm Springs Chairs," "Broome Street Hoover" or "Twentieth and Mississippi," Bechtle's pictures typically seem less about who or what or where they depict (his wife, a vacuum cleaner, lots and lots of cars and the occasional Bay Area intersection) than about some ineffable absence.

It's what the show gets at, a little bit, when it tells you, as it does on one text panel, that the fact that Bechtle has "decentralized signature elements such as cars and houses in more recent work, often relegating them to the margins of his paintings, inevitably suggests that his subjects, as we thought we understood them, were never really the subjects after all."

The artist himself gets a little closer to this idea when he writes of his ongoing interest in investigating just "how much nothing" his compositions can contain.

The answer? A whole lot, which is precisely what makes Bechtle's art feel so paradoxically full. Deadpan, matter-of-fact representations of his middle-class suburban world, these paintings dating from the early 1960s to just a couple of years ago are like vessels, in a sense, into which we are able to pour our own feelings -- of longing, estrangement, nostalgia, boredom, of a West Coast slackness or the (unfulfilled?) promise of the last frontier. As Bechtle has suggested, it's art that tells us more about us than about him.

There is certainly a "dumbness," to use the artist's own word, about car painting, a genre with which Bechtle will probably be forever associated, despite his having branched out (somewhat) from that early artistic obsession to paint people, back yards and interiors. Not dumbness in the sense of stupidity, though some might call it that, but in the sense of muteness. Like dead men, cars -- or the houses in front of which they're parked and the streets down which they roll -- don't say much. It's up to us, Bechtle suggests, to figure out how we feel about the scenes he paints.

A text panel quotes author Anais Nin: "We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are."

To be sure, Bechtle's painting deals with formal issues, too. Like Richard Diebenkorn, whose art classes Bechtle tried to avoid while a student at the California College of Arts and Crafts in the late 1950s in order not to be unduly influenced by the older "name" artist, Bechtle makes pictures that can be read as intersecting planes and angles. His increasingly frequent use of expanses of wall, pavement and sky has a quasi-abstract basis, despite Bechtle's firm footing in the tradition of, as he says, 17th-century genre painting.

Equally undeniable is Bechtle's powerful evocation of place. Born in San Francisco, and raised mainly in the island suburb of Alameda, Bechtle is a master at rendering that distinctive quality of Northern California light -- a light that simultaneously illuminates and flattens everything, seemingly heightening the drama of the ordinary and the everyday.

His work is also hugely indebted to photography. Yet, while Bechtle works with photos as his source material, projecting the snapshot-like images directly onto the work surface, his pictures are highly edited, reductive versions of what the camera has seen. He's called a photo-realist, but Bechtle's pictures can have an otherworldly flavor that more often evokes de Chirico than anything.

So what are we to make of them?

Social critique? Pretty landscapes? Affectless, Warholian reportage with all the nutritional value of pop?

As noted by curator Janet Bishop, Bechtle's art, especially in reproduction, can appear almost documentary. In the flesh, it's something else, seeming to simultaneously capture a world that either a) looks very much like the one in which we grew up, or b) makes us ask ourselves, as Peter Greenhalgh, the Corcoran's British-born director designate, says he did upon first encountering Bechtle's work in London, "Wow, does anywhere in the world really look like this?"

Yes and no, Bechtle seems to say. It is the artist, then, who's equivocal -- if not entirely mute -- and on whose resonantly empty stages the sounds of our own thoughts echo.


Through June 4 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW (Metro: Farragut West). 202-639-1700. Open Wednesday-Sunday 10 to 5; Thursdays 10 to 9. $8; seniors and military personnel $6; students $4; guests of members $3. Members and children younger than 12 free. Admission on Thursdays after 5 is "pay as you wish."

Public programs associated with the exhibition include:

March 22 at 7 Lecture and exhibition viewing: "Presenting Robert Bechtle." $15.

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