In Part One I described Robert Bechtle's art, still on view at SFMOMA, as awe-inspiring, and ventured the opinion that the sun, perhaps the oldest object of worship in human history, plays a part in most of Bechtle's paintings and prints that makes his work specifically Northern Californian, and takes the work beyond genre painting and "photorealism" into the realm of the religious.
But how could I call Bechtle's art religious when the subject material is banal to the point of near-absurdity: very ordinary residential scenes of houses and cars, so ordinary that the adult viewer feels impelled to smirk.
The key word here is adult. Most adults sophisticated enough to go to an art museum or look at an exhibition catalog are likely to react the Bechtle's subject material with disdain. Examples of excellence in architecture, landscaping, and automotive design are shown rarely or not at all. Figures in these paintings, including Bechtle's own self-portraits, are flagrantly ho-hum in the eye of the mature viewer.
The key to discovery of the religious component lies in the fact that every adult art buff carries inside his brain and body his chilhood emotional memories. (In a previous blogpost I noted the role of this inner child in the creation and appreciation of Abstract Expressionist art.)
When an adult views a builder-designed Craftsman bungalow knockoff with a station wagon parked in front, he yawns mentally, but his inner child sees or feels icons to worship: home, family, the family car, outings with Mommy & Daddy, visits to Grandma and Disneyland, home cooking, ice cream. Because the life of the American middle class has changed so much since the World Wars, the emotional power of such icons has been forgotten, or worse, is experienced as a threat to ideology or a hard-won sense of personal hipness.
A recent commentator described Bechtle's art as depicting "nothing." But atheists though we may be, our latent psychic gods are not nothing. Accept them or not, they are something.
There are no atheists in a '60 T-bird.—JDL
Copyright ©2004-2005 Jonathan David Leavitt