SHANGHAI: The retirement of two-time Olympic champion Lin Dan signals the end of a golden era of Chinese sporting superstars, state media said on Tuesday.
Arguably the greatest badminton player of all time, the 36-year-old said on Saturday that he was bringing the curtain down on a career that also brought five world titles.
NBA All-Star Yao Ming, Olympic gold-medal hurdler Liu Xiang and two-time tennis Grand Slam champion Li Na have all retired in the last decade.
“With the ‘Super Dan’ curtain call, people cannot help but sigh,” Xinhua news agency said.
“The era of the superstar that once belonged to Chinese sports has faded.
“When will the next Lin Dan appear? Or when will the next Yao Ming, Liu Xiang and Li Na appear?
“Where is the next Chinese sports superstar who will create a collective memory for us?”
The quartet were not just world leaders in their sport and popular in China, but also had “considerable influence in the international arena and became a window for the world to understand China,” Xinhua said.
Of prominent Chinese athletes left, women’s volleyball player Zhu Ting has the potential to rise to superstar level, Xinhua said, while disgraced swimmer Sun Yang “enjoys high popularity (in China), but unfortunately he is banned.”
The 28-year-old is appealing against an 8-year ban for refusing to give a doping sample. The three-time Olympic freestyle champion’s career will effectively be over if he loses his appeal at the Swiss Federal Tribunal.
China has world champions in other sports, and finished third behind the US and Britain in the medal table at the Rio 2016 Olympics, but they are not generally well-known even inside the country, Xinhua said.
Table tennis player Zhang Jike, another three-time Olympic gold medalist, deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Lin, said the Oriental Sports Daily.
But at 32 his best days are behind him and as far back as 2016 he signaled his intention to retire, before having a change of heart.
“When will the next Lin Dan and China’s next sports superstar appear again?” asked the newspaper.
“This question may not be answered in a short space of time.”
The power of smell: Learning to feel through scent
On our first family holiday to the Blue Mountains, we were surrounded by thick bush. Early mornings smelled of eucalyptus oil from the gum trees. It was winter and cold, but I delighted in running through the rooms with my brother, pulling on the long cords hanging down from the high ceilings to turn the lights…
On our first family holiday to the Blue Mountains, we were surrounded by thick bush. Early mornings smelled of eucalyptus oil from the gum trees. It was winter and cold, but I delighted in running through the rooms with my brother, pulling on the long cords hanging down from the high ceilings to turn the lights on and off. My joy did not last.
In the disinfectant soaked emergency room, the doctors marvelled at my stoicism. At only four years old, I stuck out my tongue unbidden and breathed in for the stethoscope, despite lung-wrenching bursts of asthma that had me gasping for air. I made no other sound. Right from the start, crying from fear or pain, or crying for any reason really, was actively discouraged. Snot and mucous blocked my already overburdened sinuses, making me worse. I was always an obedient child.
When I was young, I often fell sick. I was allergic to cow’s milk since birth and then to almost anything I touched, ingested or smelled. Sunshine makes me sneeze, and I get headaches from even the most expensive of perfumes worn by people standing a considerable distance away. My sense of taste has been diminished along with the ability to recognise and name every flavour in the food on my plate.
But despite, or perhaps because of, the damage, my sense of smell has been enhanced.
Standing in our kitchen at home one day, aged eight, an intense aroma of lavender enveloped the room. When I inhaled deeply, it flooded my senses, and the solid countertops, cupboards and floors around me vanished from sight.
I remember nothing else, just an aide-memoire, a photo of me as a toddler sitting on the veranda at my grandmother’s house. It is black and white, but I know my hair was bright blonde back then. I had been caught in the act of falling over or awkwardly sitting down the way babies do when they are dressed in baggy overalls on top of voluminous cloth nappies.
As I look at this much smaller, much younger me, my nostrils fill with bouquets of lavender once more. It grew in great whorls along my grandmother’s driveway, and she made sachets of it to put in the drawers with her clothes.
That day in the kitchen grandmother came to say goodbye. Lavender is happiness mixed with melancholy and longing.
Jasmine and cigars
My parents fought a lot before they separated that same year. I perceived that the noise they made was not good, but I was too young to understand the content.
In summer, the house was permeated with the heady scent of jasmine. A vine grew around the railings on the terrace outside and when mum was happy, she would cut long tendrils of it and arrange it in three white elliptical vases. They fitted together to make a whole, in a way we as a family never did.
Most days she spent a lot of time in bed, curtains drawn. Dad worked and played hard, and was not in the house very often and when he was, the home became a battlefield with me the unwilling spectator. Yet the waft of a smouldering cigar still takes me back to sitting on his lap, content.
Dinner times were sacred in that house. Mum was half English, so we sat up at the table and asked before we got down.
Serviettes were made of paper and only used when we had a takeaway, but napkins were nice and always made of cloth. The soup should be spooned away from the body, and the special round-headed spoons should never be confused with the oval-headed ones laid out for dessert.
Mum was big on rules. But it did not stop the fights between my older brother and sister. The tang of pepper always hits me like the shaker one of them threw at the other. I cannot remember who raised their arm, missed their target and got me square in the forehead instead. Dead centre. The lid came off, releasing the contents, making my eyes sting, and my nose run uncontrollably. Pepper still makes me sneeze but not as much as then. Its spice is tinged with threat.
At everyday meals we used the ordinary cutlery, keeping the silver set for best. Polishing it was one of the many chores I was given.
The silver polish, a pink semi-unguent liquid emanating forcefully from a plastic bottle, was unlike other chemical concoctions because it left my olfactory nerve in peace.
The repetition of applying the polish, rubbing it in and going over and over the surface until the black grease from handling was replaced by a brilliant sheen, was seductively hypnotic.
The non-stop chattering, as my mind tried to process life events and determine their meaning, stopped, and I just was. Calm.
In my teenage years, I did as my mother instructed and used my brain to question and challenge at every turn. Her method for dealing with this was to remain suspended in a palpable seething silence for weeks at a time.
When she did unleash, every moment of self-doubt, intimate secret joy, fear or concern I had confessed, in fact any daughterly intimacy I shared, no matter how insignificant, could and would be used to punish, torment and hurt me.
I learned early on that showing a reaction, any at all, was ill-advised.
By the time I was 18, I no longer gave her any ammunition, even about events as momentous as losing my virginity. How I longed to tell her, just to experience the thrill of knocking her off balance, if only for a moment.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]My memory paintbox
Looking back at my childhood is like viewing an incomplete painting. I can make out scattered, isolated instances of happiness, but on the whole, the canvas is largely blank.
My memory paintbox holds no fine brushes to define outlines or rich colour palette to fill in the hues. It only contains an automatic self-defence mechanism that blurs all the details when it comes to my emotions.
If voices are raised and feelings aired, a red cloud blankets my brain. Whole sentences and single words are obscured or even replaced by another from the same lexicon, similar but not equally exact in meaning. Nuance disables my comprehension. A few minutes after the fact, I cannot remember clearly what was said to me or what I myself said. Even innocuous titbits like what I was wearing, elude me.
Just thinking of initiating discussions about what makes me unhappy or facing conflict head-on suffocates me. I fight against intense panic and dread, and fail to understand what it is I am feeling, let alone know whether it is appropriate or not.
Throughout, my olfactory memory bank overflows. Like a dog distracted by high-pitched sounds, when I pick up a scent, I become completely obsessed by something no one else can discern. Crinkling my nostrils I have to sniff incessantly until I am able to identify what it is I can smell.
My first all-consuming, life-changing love was with a married man whose wife left him in spirit when she had a one night stand, years before she left him in person.
He and I lived together for two years, although I spent the last six months mustering up the willpower to leave him. I was 22 by then and cried a lot in the shower and constantly changed my mind.
Afterwards, we remained friends, good ones, joking about how we would grow old and disgraceful together. At least I would, he was already known for being outspoken and rude.
Then one day he took the lid off a bottle of paint thinner and drank it all down. He was not found for two weeks.
When I went round to his house a week later, the metallic stench of blood still lingered and clung to every corner of every room. It registered so pungently with my nasal cilia that I could taste it on my tongue. I sometimes notice a diluted version when I am at the dentist, or sucking a paper cut on my finger. Brackish and full of loss.
I dropped out of university and went to London and hitch-hiked, bussed and ferried around Europe. For a whole year, I was free, from my family, my mother and my incomprehensible emotion-laden memories. I drank more than was good for me, danced with strangers and reinvented myself.
“Love ’em and leave ’em” was my unoriginal creed and a trailing caress of sandalwood my calling card.
The pure oil was sold in tiny exotic tinted glass bottles at Portobello Market in London, by solemn Indian men dressed in dhoti, armoured against the cold in ancient furs or discarded army greatcoats.
For once, I was just like all the other women I hung around with – pretty, young and fragrant. Normal.
Damp, talc and hospital smells
My father spent the last six weeks of his life in a drab palliative care unit built in a gully, dense with eucalyptus trees.
The building never really saw the sun, so a pervasive trace of damp mingled with the everyday hospital odours, like microwaved meals drowned in white sauce, the antiseptic whiff of soap and the fetid presence of death.
It was summer, and I went to see dad every day. It was so hot I carefully slathered my face with thick sunscreen each morning for the long walk down the hill, and back up again.
I took care to dress well, with matching handbag, shoes and lipstick to accentuate the smile on my face my father loved to see until the day he stopped talking.
Dad had always been a smart dresser and used the same brand of talc day in, day out. I can smell him shaking the light floury spots of white powder all over his shoulders from a time when I first started to retain memories. The red squeeze bottle standing sentry next to his hospital bed ran out the same day he was declared to be actively dying.
Substituting smells for feelings
I used to get great satisfaction in working out what it was I could smell. It substituted perfectly for needing to know what I felt. Acknowledging an emotion, perceiving a sentiment, or just identifying a memory as an expression of feeling a particular way is something I had never been able to completely articulate or comprehend.
When dad died, that began to change. After his death, if by chance I breathed in a waft of his talcum powder emanating from a passing stranger, I always looked up and smiled, expecting to see him. Of course I never did, but I relished the fragrance because it marked his presence, confirmed that he once was.
In contrast, I despised the sickly perfume of the sunscreen I wore to the hospital, and will not willingly choose to use it again. At first, it was because it served to remind me of my father’s absence. All the attendant feelings that accompanied the weeks he lay dying were listed in its ingredients. I was afraid if I rubbed it onto my skin again, those emotions would engulf me, just like the red fog that shuts down my brain during arguments.
However, the olfactory memories of my father sparked by the talc and the sunscreen are equally zoetic. They represent the whole of my father’s being and the total of my experience of his life and death. The negative emotions they evoke are as necessary and essential as the positive.
Without large, frightening, and overwhelming emotional episodes, times of joyous, delirious excitement and pleasure have no meaning. They need a context in which to take form, otherwise life is bereft of connotation and nothing more than an objective description of events.
Now, when I deliberately reach for a different brand of sunscreen, it is because I like the smell, and no longer a way to avoid identifying and dealing with how I feel.
SuperM Unite: K-pop’s Avengers Call For Togetherness On Super One
Courtesy of SM Entertainment Halfway through Super One, the first full-length studio album from the South Korean band SuperM, something unexpected happens. After the breakout single “Tiger Inside,” a fearsome composition of guttural growls and clapping beats, cools off, its fiery sound gives way to the twinkling piano keys of the group’s first ballad, “Better…
Courtesy of SM Entertainment
Halfway through Super One, the first full-length studio album from the South Korean band SuperM, something unexpected happens. After the breakout single “Tiger Inside,” a fearsome composition of guttural growls and clapping beats, cools off, its fiery sound gives way to the twinkling piano keys of the group’s first ballad, “Better Days.” It’s a hopeful song about overcoming hard times collectively, and with its slow-burning, ‘90s-tinged nostalgia, it seems at once outside the group’s typically boisterous sound and perfectly placed. The dichotomous arrangement of the two tracks resonates as the sonic equivalent of reaching the peak of a mountain, then looking out over a cloudy expanse, off to “better days, better days, better days” — and toward forever. You realize the world is so small.
“The lyrics are, kind of, very healing,” the 24-year-old Thai singer Ten says of the track during a Zoom press conference. After he speaks, his six collaborators — Taemin, Baekhyun, Kai, Taeyong, Mark, and Lucas — clap and cheer wildly in response. “I think people, when you listen to ‘Better Days,’ you can get that energy that we, us together, can make a better day.”
The “Avengers of K-pop” have been making history since they arrived on the circuit less than a year ago. The first K-pop supergroup, comprised of seven key members from acts under the parent company SM Entertainment (SHINee, EXO, NCT 127, WayV), their eponymous EP debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, the first Korean artists to do so with a first release. Their sound became synonymous with the electricity of their earliest, instantly iconic single, “Jopping,” a formula followed by “2 Fast” and “Super Car.” That inherent energy is perhaps what made their work immediately appropriate for big-stadium tours: They embarked on their first world tour, We Are the Future Live, months after their debut, concluding at New York’s legendary Madison Square Garden. It’s also what makes their first ballad such an outlier within their catalog, albeit perfectly at home on Super One.
“We all need to come together and unite,” 27-year-old Taemin declares of the LP’s core message with the help of a translator. “We all need to come together to overcome rather than just the individuals.” That notion resonates immediately and poignantly while the group speaks to a group of journalists separated by continents and a global pandemic; at the end of the chat, they pose for selfies with smiles and peace signs for the digital grid of writers. This experience, a yearning to be together while being forced apart, is framed on the bumping, radio-ready English closing track “With You,” which was previously performed during Global Citizen’s Lady Gaga-curated One World: Together At Home benefit livestream. But the notion appears throughout, as on “Tiger Inside,” about unleashing one’s inner strength.
Courtesy of SM EntertainmentThough collective healing might be the driving theme of Super One, it’s equally defined by its eclecticism. It grooves into R&B on “Step Up” and “So Long,” while the album’s titular opus, “One (Monster & Infinity),” a hybrid remix, is an all-out banger with a gooey techno beat. The track might give SHINee fans flashbacks: It’s the first medley of its kind from an SM group since “Sherlock (Clue + Note).” “When I recorded ‘Sherlock’ with SHINee back in the day, at that time, it was like one of the first times we were doing this, so it felt very experimental,” Taemin adds. “At that time, I was a little worried but not worried about how this would end up sounding at the end of the recording process… A lot of people might think that mixing two songs together is, kind of, quite tall of a task, but we were able to do it, and I’m really happy with the results.”
A debut album is a symbolic, defining moment for an artist’s career; on Super One, SuperM are both the sum of their parts while also transcending that, a unique symbiosis among larger-than-life singular talents. And yet, there’s still more for the boys to learn along the way: “I’m sure everyone feels the same way but, as artists, when we start out our careers, I can’t help but to feel that a lot of the moments that we go through feel like we’re still trying to get there, like we’re not fully there yet,” 25-year-old Taeyong says. “There are a lot of moments where it might’ve felt like a failure but actually, everything was like a step to build up what they have now.”
From the Archives: Matters of Fact
The Bay Area–based Photo-Realist painter Robert Bechtle died this week at age eighty-eight. In this essay from our October 2005 issue, Richard Kalina discusses Bechtle’s retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the ways in which the artist’s paintings of the suburban landscape grapple with representation. —Eds. Robert Bechtle hit upon a…
The Bay Area–based Photo-Realist painter Robert Bechtle died this week at age eighty-eight. In this essay from our October 2005 issue, Richard Kalina discusses Bechtle’s retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the ways in which the artist’s paintings of the suburban landscape grapple with representation. —Eds.
Robert Bechtle hit upon a photo-based approach to realism in the mid-1960s, clarified his painting methods by the end of that decade and, while deepening the work over the years, has stayed firmly within the Photo-Realist fold ever since. Bechtle remains close to his geographic roots as well. He was born in California’s San Francisco Bay Area in 1932 and has lived, studied, and worked there his entire life. The great majority of his subjects—cars, house fronts, backyards, streetscapes, people sitting or standing around or going about ordinary domestic business (lighting a barbeque, watering the lawn)—have been drawn from his immediate surroundings. The recent retrospectives of his paintings and works on paper at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and of his prints at the nearby Crown Point Press Gallery examined the work of an artist who enjoys an international reputation, but who is also very much part of the local scene. Bay Area painting has figured importantly in American postwar art, and Bechtle has continued to play a key role in its development. In fact, if you wished to map Bay Area realism—for me, the region’s strongest suit—one point of reference would be the structured expressionism of Richard Diebenkorn, another the juicy Pop of Wayne Thiebaud, and a third the cool, meticulous Photo-Realism of Robert Bechtle.
Photo-Realism, as Bechtle practices it, seems straightforward. It is presentational, emotionally understated and stylistically neutral, with no mysteries, politics, or painterly flourishes readily apparent. Bechtle shoots a 35mm slide of a scene from quotidian American life, projects it onto a midsized canvas, draws it accurately and renders it with brushes and oil paint in a clear, meticulous way, so that the final product retains the look and feel of the source photograph. Considering the amount of detail inherent in most photographs, it comes as no surprise that it takes months for Bechtle to make a painting. Photo-Realists have used various techniques to make their work. Malcolm Morley in his early paintings, for examples, would grid the canvas, turn it upside down and paint the image in, square by square. (He has recently returned to this style in his paintings of catastrophes and sporting events.) Others combine source photographs to create a working image. Bechtle keeps it simple. He shoots a slide, crops it and uses what he sees, subject to the occasional deletion or minor rearrangement. Bechtle shepherds his painting along in clear, layered stages. He draws the projected image, turns the lights back on and slowly brings the painting up from a monochrome to a colored underpainting. He then moves on to precise overpainting, and finally adds the carefully considered small adjustments needed to bring the work to the right degree of finish.
In some ways Photo-Realism is easier than it looks. Although to the general public it appears to be a technical tour de force, most trained artists can pull the feat off, and over the years many have. Some, of course, do it better than others. Many people consider the Photo-Realists a uniform lot, distinguished only by variations in subject matter—one paints diners, another movie theaters, still another pickup trucks—but there is much more to it than that, and artists like Bechtle, Ralph Goings, and Richard Estes are able to make surprising things happen in what would appear to be a tightly restricted format. The Photo-Realist enterprise continues in various guises, and (to take a recent example) if you compare Bechtle’s work to the recent Damien Hirst paintings of pills, medical procedures and the like, the difference becomes clear. Bechtle and his experienced peers make paintings that are formally rich and nuanced, in command of the resources of both realistic and abstract painting, whereas the Hirst paintings (like Jeff Koons’s forays into representational painting), although interesting in the context of his larger project, are essentially information; they are formally inert and, tellingly, look better in reproduction than in real life.
The self-acknowledged Photo-Realists also sort out according to who came to the practice when. Bechtle was a member of the original group. Discovering a new way of making art (and Photo-Realism really did amount to something fresh) rather than taking up an existing style has traditionally added to an artist’s luster. In part this is a function of critical and commercial bookkeeping (the First Generation Abstract Expressionists, for example, are distinguished from the Second), but a significant aspect of primacy—and Bechtle has pointed this out on a number of occasions—is a sense of heightened urgency in the work, a feeling on the part of the artist that something needs to be done, and nobody so far has done it. This urgency can last throughout an artist’s career, and I believe it has for Bechtle. His newer work is more pressured and baroque than that which preceded it, sometimes teetering on the edge of vertigo. It is full of shadows and light shifts, and replete with painterly incident, albeit subtle. A street, for example, that in an early Bechtle would be an uninflected stretch of gray, will be rendered in a later work as an almost pointillist spread of blue, orange, and brown. Step back a bit, and it resolves perfectly into pavement, but the visual charge stays with you.
Robert Bechtle, ’61 Pontiac, 1968-69, oil on canvas, 59 3/4 by 84 1/4 inches.
©1969 Robert Bechtle, courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art.
Bechtle’s earliest professional work was painterly in a nondemonstrative way. It was introspective, carefully composed (he often portrayed figures in an interior, set against framing windows or mirrors) and executed in nicely modulated, grayed tonalities. These are fine paintings—Cookie Jar (1964), a self-portrait with the figure ambiguously caught somewhere in the mid-ground of opposing bedroom mirrors, is a good example—but they are anchored firmly in a traditional territory. It wasn’t until Bechtle moved his focus outdoors and began to use the camera as a real working tool that his work began to look like something new.
The quality of light differs from place to place, and, on the sunny middays that Bechtle chose to photograph his subjects, that light—clean, bright, and coastal—seems quintessentially Californian. One of his earliest Photo-Realist works, ’60 T-Bird (1967–68), set the stage for many of the paintings that were to follow. It is a portrait (as are a large number of Bechtle’s paintings), but one with a difference. A slim, balding man who looks to be in his mid-30s is shown standing by the open door of a shiny white Ford Thunderbird, one foot inside the car, the other on the pavement. He’s wearing white chinos, a blue short-sleeved shirt, and sunglasses. He’s posed, sort of: his body turned three quarters toward us, his head in profile. His left hand is in his pocket; his right rests causally on the top of the car’s window frame. He’s a good-looking guy with a cool car on a beautiful California day—and he’s the artist’s brother to boot. But the picture’s not really about him; in fact, in terms of square inches, he’s not terribly important. It’s much more about the feel of the heavy, cream-white car set against the textured façade of a bluer white stucco house. It’s about the smooth expanse of pavement, the fat gray tires and the composition of windows, vents, drainpipes, rooflines, and bushes. What seems to have most concerned the artist is precise planar division and the interplay of both close and sharply divergent tonal values.
But this is also a painting in which the look of a photograph is closely attended to: the monocular flattening, the combination of spatial squeeze and equally weighted detail. We know that visual space and feel comfortable with it. This innate acceptance gives Bechtle plenty of room to maneuver, to turn up the heat without our much noticing. The collapsed pictorial space of a photograph allows objects that are adjacent in the photo but on different planes in the real world to stick together, as it were—to read as both discrete entities and as odd hybrids. For example, a tire seems glued to the young boy’s back in Agua Caliente Nova (1975); man and Weber barbeque become one in Miles City Bar-B-Que (1978); and the artist seated on his living-room couch and the white Volvo station wagon parked in the driveway outside are conjoined head-to-grille in Potrero Hill (1996).
It is striking how few of the Photo-Realists ever got involved with photography as an artistic medium in its own right. In the pictures he takes for his paintings Bechtle deliberately cultivates an artless look, the sort of straight-ahead stance of, as he puts it, “a real-estate photograph.” He shoots all the photographs for his paintings, and they are taken solely for that purpose. With the exception of an early canvas, ’46 Chevy (1965), he has never used a preexisting snapshot as a source for his work. Photography functions simply as a tool, a means to an end, not the end itself. The tool, of course, is used subtly. For example, unlike Chuck Close and Gerhard Richter, Bechtle does not use photography’s capacity to blur either as a signifier of the painting’s photographic source, a formal device, or a means of intensifying emotion. All of the elements in a Bechtle painting are in sharp focus, just as they are in human vision. He maintains extreme crispness but avoids a distracting “cutout” look by various tactics, among them the painting of very thin halation lines paralleling a contour, or the breaking of a smooth edge and the insertion of a bordering area’s colors and forms. Bechtle knows how to operate in the gap between what the eye registers and the mind constructs, a useful ability when dealing with a source as tricky as photography.
The objectivity of a photograph is a convention, and one decreasingly serviceable in a world of widespread digital manipulation. Since painting, however, has traditionally bent observed reality to its own expressive and interpretive purposes, the use of a photograph as an ostensibly undistorted painting model allows the artist to tap into the aura of veracity that photographs are still sometimes presumed to have. Needless to say, putting a lens (of any focal length) between the artist and the subject to be painted invariably changes the look of that painting. The camera distorts, but it distorts in a different way than drawing or painting from life does. No matter how skilled an artist you are, and how intent you are on transcribing what you see, the act of transferring three-dimensional reality onto a two-dimensional surface is of necessity mediated through sensibility. The head moves, the light changes, scales subtly shift; some aspect of the visual field is always more engaging than another. This, of course, is precisely what we value in working from life. To painting a photograph is another business altogether, since it makes something two-dimensional from something that is already two-dimensional.
This process would seem straightforward, but the act of translation from photograph to painting is not a simple shift of scale or change of materials. Because the two aspects of the equation are so self-contained and formally related, the move from photograph to painting functions as an act of displacement as much as it does an act of transformation. The photograph has taken up residence in the painting. It is the “other”—hidden there in plain sight, and creating, as the “other” tends to do, a sense of unease.
A related form of displacement operates in Bechtle’s work, a movement of identity between people and things. In ’61 Pontiac (1968–69), a family, as usual unnamed, but in fact the artist, his wife, and two young children, are posed in front of a white Pontiac station wagon. They squint a bit into the sun, the man with his left hand on top of his son’s head, the woman holding the younger daughter on her hip. But there is a fifth member of the family, the car. This implicit category drift works both ways: as the car becomes more human, the humans become less so. The title of the painting (and this is echoed throughout the body of Bechtle’s work) is no accident.
Robert Bechtle, Bob’s Sebring, 2011, oil on linen, 40 by 57 3/4 inches.
Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels
Cars figure prominently in Bechtle’s art—not exactly a surprise in work depicting modern California life, but in a purportedly open culture they possess an oddly hermetic quality. People may be shown in proximity to automobiles, but nobody (with the exception of that early snapshot-derived painting, ’46 Chevy) is ever seated in one, much less shown in the act of driving. There are (again with the exception of ’46 Chevy) no convertibles either. Automobiles are parked, their engines silent, and in a number of recent works, like Jetta (2003) and Covered Car—Missouri Street II (2001), they are shrouded by car covers. For the most part Bechtle’s cars are big and bulky, low-keyed, but still vaguely menacing presences. They tend to crowd the space of the painting, sometimes physically, but almost always emotionally. The hulking brown-and-tan station wagon in ’71 Buick is captured from a low angle and at a slight diagonal. It looms in front of a modest white bungalow, which, with its staggered roofline, echoes the shape of the car. It’s not much of a contest: the car is powerful, dominant; the house, with its white-and-red scalloped aluminum awnings, rather pathetic. Similarly, the silvery blue sedan in Marin Avenue—Late Afternoon (1998) is (due to perspective) longer than the unprepossessing house it is parked in front of, and the huge gray-green Chrysler in Alameda Chrysler (1981) makes the older woman who proudly stands by its smooth, concave flank look small and vulnerable, her loud floral blouse, checked pants and chipper air notwithstanding. Perhaps the most ominous of all is the sky-blue Chrysler with the black-wall tires in ’67 Chrysler (1973). It is parked facing slightly downhill, ready to roll, and carries with it the sullen, matte, and disturbingly anonymous look of an unmarked police cruiser.
Cars function as surrogates for living creatures in Bechtle’s painting, sometimes menacingly, sometimes humorously. The mismatched trio of white Buick compact, old-fashioned black boatlike Hudson, and light-blue VW bug parked nose-to-tail in Date Palms (1971) feels like a procession of circus animals, while the bright yellow sedan with the black vinyl top in Near Ocean Avenue (2002), parked in a driveway in a neighborhood of bland cars and blander houses, suggests the presence of an individualist, a life-of-the-(very dull)-party type.
While cars reflect the humans that own them, so does furniture, especially that analogue to the seated human form, the chair. Chairs are pressed into service in a number of Bechtle’s paintings. Watsonville Chairs (1976) depicts an enclosed back porch, separated from its neighbors by a wooden fence topped with a run of yellow corrugated plastic. A strikingly tanned elderly man is the sole occupant of the picture. He sits in profile at a round white table in the right-hand corner of the foreground. His arm and a portion of his face are in deep shadow, while the rest of him is brilliantly lighted. An open bottle of Olympia beer sits on the table next to him. He faces right and looks out of the picture, not connecting in any way with the viewer. Far more congenial are the three mismatched and casually placed chairs occupying the majority of the deck space. Two are tubular-aluminum deck chairs, one yellow and white, the other green and white. The center chair is a dining room or kitchen chair upholstered in green vinyl floral print, its pointy, tapered legs set uncomfortably in the wide spaces between the deck boards. There’s a family here, but a missing one, and the painting, for all its light, strikes me as distressingly dark in spirit—something out of a downbeat John Cheever story (set improbably in the warm country south of San Francisco.)
Santa Barbara Chairs (1983) is another painting with a strong emotional kick. The bearded artist, wearing sunglasses, faces the viewer. He is on a patio in a grassy backyard, seated at one of those round white tables with a hole in the center for an umbrella. There is no umbrella, and while the figure is partially shaded, the table is in full sun. The table and a jumble of mismatched chairs interpose themselves between the figure and the viewer like a kind of barricade. The scene portrayed is, on the face of it, perfectly ordinary, but the sense of psychological isolation is palpable. The figure and the furniture are set off-center to the right. The painting is saved from imbalance by the single green-and-white line of a garden hose that runs across the grass on the left-hand side of the picture. This provides a tenuous compositional and emotional stability, a conduit to and from the figure.
Robert Bechtle, Potrero Golf Legacy, 2012, oil on linen, 41 by 59 inches.
Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels
The psychological charge of a Bechtle painting is all the more powerful because of its indirection: he goes to great pains to draw our attention away from obvious emotions and toward an almost numbing recitation of visual specifics. Such an approach has characterized the work of a certain sector of the literary and cinematic avant-garde, and the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet, with their deadpan accretion of descriptive detail, make an interesting counterpart to Bechtle’s work. If Bechtle were a photographer, then the psychological might play a more conspicuous role in his work. These, however, are paintings, and detail, while captured immediately and mechanically in the source photograph, is not treated that way in the end product. A photographer, no matter how engaged, stands at a remove from the complexity of the subject photographed: a scene is framed, the best image is chosen, and the picture is developed and printed. While a photographer pays attention to the elements of the photograph, it is not with the same point-to-point intensity brought to bear by a painter transcribing that photograph. That concentration on specifics and away from the iconic tends to mute emotions, especially when the subject matter is ostensibly neutral. Bechtle’s paintings are damped down both emotionally and formally, and, while immediately comprehensible on one level, they tend to reveal themselves slowly, even a bit reluctantly.
Bechtle, in the last fifteen or so years, has nudged his subject matter away from the overtly mundane to the guardedly lively. While in earlier work, for example, the streets he depicted were resolutely flat, he now takes advantage of San Francisco’s hilliness to give his paintings an air of dynamism and instability. The results might be consciously dramatic, as in Sunset Intersection—40th and Vicente (1989), with its strange combination of sunlit street and blackening, stormy sky, or they might be quietly unsettling, as they are in Texas Street Intersection (2000). That painting places the viewer on the edge of the pavement at an intersection of two wide but nearly empty streets. Yellow walk lines placed perpendicular to the bottom fo the canvas and right of center direct us across the street to a steep hill whose sidewalk is deeply shadowed. Another hill falls precipitously away to the left. A stop sign runs from the bottom of the painting to the top, isolating a light-colored car on the far left side of the painting. The car is not parallel parked. Instead, it faces us, its rear wheels up against the curb. The car looks heavy, canted, and not entirely steady. This unanchored feeling is exaggerated by the way the picture is cropped. No sky shows; there is nothing bigger or deeper to orient yourself by. It is worthwhile to compare the painting to a print that Bechtle made of the same subject in 2004. Texas and 20th Intersection was clearly crated from the same image that generated the painting, but the print, a soft ground etching with aquatint, feels quite different from the work on canvas. Bechtle changed format for the print, making the image squarer. More of the scene is thus revealed at the top and bottom, and, by rendering the shadows transparently and adding windows and a section of sky to the composition, he gives the print a lighter, less emotionally compressed air.
Bechtle has also done drawings and prints of night scenes in recent years. The streets he portrays are, as usual, empty. Cars are parked, and the occasional window is lighted. These are particularly affecting works, conveying not the expected emotion of isolation or loneliness, but instead a romantic quietness. Arkansas Street—Night (2002) is a small charcoal drawing on blue-gray paper. It depicts a street with a few windows illuminated and two cars parked on either end of it. Moody and elegiac, the drawing has the feeling of the turn-of-the-century pictorial photography of Alfred Stieglitz or Edward Steichen. Similarly lyrical is a gravure-and-aquatint print, 20th and Mississippi—Night (2002). A Hilly street crests in the middle of the composition, forming what is, to all intents and purposes, a horizon line. On one side of the street, a low white building sits; on the other side, a pickup truck. The sky lightens as it approaches the pavement, and you can’t help feeling that something extraordinary is happening right over that hill.
While Bechtle might have his theatrical moments, his work never crosses the line into manipulation, much less sentimentality. It is grounded in the factual, in the complex world of appearances. The utter familiarity of his subject matter—both the scene itself and the look of the source photograph—allows Bechtle’s paintings to slip in under the radar. (Familiarity does not, of course, imply universality. Bechtle’s subject matter is grounded in a specific time, place, and social milieu, and will no doubt appear more removed from ordinary life as time goes by.) Refreshingly, the paintings do not proclaim their importance or flaunt their intelligence. In an odd twist, Bechtle’s overt technical virtuosity provides a cover for his pictorial and conceptual depth: if the paintings are so well painted, so “lifelike,” how can they be anything but easy, middlebrow stuff? Of course, letting people underestimate you has tactical advantages. Bechtle grapples with serious issues of representation, but he does so in such a laboriously off-hand way that it takes a while for a viewer to realize what the artist is up to, and just how good he is. Bechtle has taken on the sorts of problems that artists of all representational stripes are dealing with these days—particularly the transmutation of the photographic image—and he has, over a span of forty-odd years, come up with real answers. He has proven himself to be a first-rate painter, draftsman, and printmaker, and as these recent shows make clear, someone to whom we should pay serious attention.