Funny coincidences happen in the Universe. To see the gears click into alignment you have to have all the pieces in focus. The iris of your eye, contracting muscle, has to tighten just right, to let the light enter through your pupil. Like a camera focusing, letting you see the details of your subject, excluding the unimportant and irrelevant.
The focus of the eye, the focus of the camera, allows you to see a moment in clarity.
In western European art, perfect portrayal and replication of that pupil light stream was the goal for years. The topics were often absurd, angels and demons and unicorns, but the goal was to trick the mind, to create realistic images with paint and brush.
Realism, perfect portrayal of the world, comes and goes as a goal. We are there again, with digital animation. The aim is portrayal of a world in such detail that the brain can nearly recognize the light as a reflection of reality.
In the 1950s and 1960s, realism was mainly “out”. Pollack and Picasso were where it was at, abstracted interpretations of the world. There were a few really dedicated painters that kept translating light as they saw it (Rockwell comes to mind) but mainly the cutting edge was moving to abstraction.
Robert Bechtle’s work, images paper thin distances from photographs, was an exception. His subject matter was the nearly mundane, the streets of the San Francisco Bay area, concrete and pale brights. His paintings capture the Oldsmobile station wagons and the slouching kids on sidewalks he saw around him.
In a 2005 article on Bechtle in The New Yorker, author Peter Schjeldahl wrote: “Life is incredibly complicated, and the proof is that when you confront any simple, stopped part of it you are stupefied.” That sentence sums up what is so stunning about Bechtle’s work. Even one split second in a random day on a random street is worthy of deep inspection.
While Bechtle was getting good at capturing the mundane in San Francisco, Richard Estes was coming to the same point in Illinois. Born in central Illinois, Estes found his inspiration on the busy streets of Chicago. Where Bechtle was drawing suburbs and station wagons, Estes was drawing subways and bus stops. But the technique, the impeccable focus on the snapshot of reality, was so similar.
Both Bechtle and Estes capture the most simplistic moments of daily life, and represent them in photorealism. One in San Francisco, one in Chicago. And the focus click, the little coincidence that makes the eye catch?
Today is their 83rd birthday. Both of them. On May 14th, 1932, two hyperrealist painters of incredible talent were born, two thousand miles apart. The gears clicked, and just for a moment the world came into focus.
*Composed May 14th, 2015