Andreas Bechtler is best known as the man behind the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art – a member of a visionary family that has invested in art and the people who make it, cultivating deep relationships with some of the most enduring artists of the 20th century.
But Andreas Bechtler is also an artist in his own right. Beginning Saturday, Charlotteans will have the chance to see his photography from the past decade in “Andreas Bechtler, the Artist” at UNC Charlotte’s Projective Eye Gallery uptown.
Bechtler describes his work as play.
His photographs, mostly archival inkjet prints, range from funny, often suggestive scenes involving figurines, to nearly abstract landscapes shot with an open shutter. There are pieces the size of postage stamps and floor-to-ceiling banners.
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Most of the work is shot outdoors and has some connection, either direct or metaphorical, to nature. Back in the studio, there is a lot of trail and error, as well as surprise, as Bechtler experiments with scale, color, papers, and coatings.
Bechtler creates these works at Little Italy Peninsula Art Center, a studio complex on Mountain Island Lake. Here, he once provided open-ended residencies to his favorite artists in the region, but now he characterizes it as a family compound.
On a crisp fall day a month before the show, you could see Bechtler in his element. Everywhere in his light-flooded space was evidence of the purifying gift of a deadline – all the work was there, but among the prodigious amounts of stuff there were decisions still to be made.
Bechtler was tweaking some pieces nearing completion, and curator Crista Cammarota was closing in on her final selections for the show.
Andreas Bechtler grew up in Switzerland, both in Zurich and Ascona. He started to paint at age 12 and had his first show in Ascona at age 17. His three early mentors, Ben Nicholson, Italo Valenti and Julius Bissier, “were so kind. Here I was, a kid, and they enjoyed talking to me. I was kind of innocent.” All were abstract painters, as was the young Bechtler.
His time in Ascona, a town on Lake Maggiore near the Italian border, strongly influenced his world view. It is a place of almost surreal contrasts, both imposing and welcoming. “It’s very special. It’s rugged, but it’s lush. They have palm trees and banana trees and winter. There are the mountains, the warm sun, the cold shadows,” says Bechtler.
“I didn’t have a studio in Ascona. I had a bathroom that my parents let me work in. My parents added a skylight because it had no windows. It was good.”
Although he began as an abstract painter and has made sculptures, Bechtler now works almost exclusively in photography.
His painting is limited mostly to the individual figurines, which he alters before arranging and photographing them. “And I paint on the computer – the colors are all done on the computer.”
He sometimes misses the messiness of being a painter, though. “I did everything in oil. I did lithographs and etchings. I love the smell of turpentine.”
With their odd juxtapositions of toys, human faces and other elements, some of Bechtler’s images appear collage-like but are actually staged and photographed that way. He uses Photoshop, but mainly to manipulate color, which he does heavily.
Bechtler prints mostly on canvas or fine art papers. He has an array of printers in the studio and can print almost anything up to 44 inches wide by 100 feet long.
Most pieces go through 10 or more variations before Bechtler is satisfied with them. Because he loves tweaking and changing, it is hard to assign exact dates to individual works.
A good example of this is “Lips Incorporated,” which includes two female figurines poised on a woman’s chin and mouth. The version on display in the gallery has framed dimensions of 40 inches by 30 inches thanks mostly to an enormous black mat, but the actual image, which is printed on paper, is tiny – about the size of old-fashioned 35mm negative.
Visitors can see a larger canvas version near the security desk in the lobby.
Bechtler’s sense of play is most evident in the figurine works. “Desire Required” and “Xmas ‘in not,’ ” both on canvas, are particularly funny and steamy. In the former, a sultry woman and a leering man are engulfed by sandy sea foam so that their heads are visible, but their activity is not. In the latter, a woman in a rowboat wears an R-rated version of a Santa suit.
For these works, Bechtler digs into what he describes as “a big old bag of figurines” that he has accumulated over the years. When asked how he finds them, he replies, “I do look for them, but not frantically. When I go by a model or hobby shop, I look – do they have any goats? Dwarves?”
Not all the figurine works are blatantly funny. Some are surreal. And some, like “The Red Flag,” a 96-inch by 72-inch work on canvas featuring a flag-waving soldier in a pile of debris, are poignant.
Several are visible from the sidewalk on Ninth Street. In the gallery windows is a series called “Wish,” diaphanous banners with figurines blown up larger than human size. A separate display at Ninth and Brevard streets is consumed by “The Hunt,” a 52-foot work on fabric of a wolf pursuing a female figurine in the distance.
While the figurines dominate, a variety of other works round out the show. Three canvas banners, “Yellow Dream,” “Purple Loneliness,” and “Pink Wishes,” hang from the ceiling; these long narrow slices of landscape are rendered in candy colors reminiscent of Kodachrome slide strips.
There are self portraits, some consisting only of reflections and shadows; these include “Cornered,” in which Bechtler’s noir-ish shadow fills the corner of a room, and the aggressive “Self Portrait,” in which his shadow spills across a brilliant patch of shrubbery and dandelions. There are also semi-abstract landscape images, with flowers and grasses reduced to lively masses and smears of color.
As varied as these pieces are, Bechtler will exhibit a completely different body of work at New Gallery of Modern Art, from Dec. 14-Jan. 30 – glistening photographs of elaborate New York shop windows at night.
Although Bechtler did not intricately stage these images, they share traits with the works at Projective Eye; for instance, the fancifully accessorized mannequins in these photographs echo the figurine works. Although the works at New Gallery are straightforward photographs, they seem dreamlike, as if they are embellished childhood recollections of window-shopping instead of depictions of the real thing.
“I never had in mind to do art, it’s nothing conscious. It’s all just evolved. I like to play. To me this is a joyful, wonderful activity that I completely immerse myself in. I get completely lost.”