"You take delight not in a city's seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours."
"Or the question it asks you, forcing you to answer, like Thebes through the mouth of the Sphinx."
(Marco Polo and Kublai Khan)
-- Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities1
Wider Views of Urban San Francisco, painter Randy Beckelheimer's current show at ArtZone 461 Gallery, focuses on San Francisco's Hunters Point, a decaying naval shipyard, the former home of a nuclear laboratory, and a federal Superfund site populated with decrepit buildings and a large community of artists who have remained because of the shipyard's remote location, the pathos of a forgotten place, and cheap rents. In contrast to the enduring artist community, the surrounding Bayview neighborhood's economic stumble has sparked the exit of many of the descendants of the African American shipyard workers.
The shipyard is geographically surrounded by water on three sides and is circumscribed by clear light and good weather. In Beckelheimer's poetic paintings, the artist offsets the ghostly and apocalyptic landscape of the abandoned shipyard and the nearby but recently demolished PG&E smokestacks with his depictions of the beautiful light. In the spirit of the Venetian Renaissance painters Bellini, Titian, and Giorgione, he creates a soft atmospheric rendering of the shipyard by painting wet into wet oil paint, creating layers of transparent glazes. The harsh subject matter, seen through these glazes, creates a romantic fiction that seduces the viewer and tells profound truths like a good novel does, ones deeper and more meaningful than mere reportage can offer.
"HPS-29," 2010; Courtesy of the Artist and ArtZone 461 Gallery, San Francisco.
Newly arrived residents and a recent light-rail line down the Third Street corridor have helped invigorate the Bayview neighborhood. The developer Lennar Corporation imagines the shipyard's future as mostly market rate housing, built in close proximity to a nuclear and chemical dump. The ongoing toxic cleanup of the shipyard temporarily forced Beckelheimer out of his studio. This removal is addressed in HPS-20 (2008), which shows one of the enormous trenches created while the developer's contractors excavated and removed the sewer system pipes that contained radioactive waste.
Beckelheimer's paintings reference fifteen years of photographing the shipyard and the surrounding community. Although originally an abstract painter, the artist's habit of photographing and researching the shipyard led him to representational painting. A number of somber grayscale paintings in the show are based on historical images he found at the public library. He sometimes composes using "photo stitching," a computer imaging technique for tacking images together into crude templates by combining multiple photographs, taken at different times of day, compounding them into whole paintings.
HPS-29 (2010), a ten-foot-long painting, depicts a reinvented shipyard landscape in the spirit of pioneer Bay Area photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge created large-format panoramic images of both urban and nature scenes by combining multiple images into large, spectacular single images. Filmmaker Hollis Frampton said that Muybridge's early panoramic views "referred to a simultaneity which is at once plausible but perfectly impossible."2 In similar fashion, Beckelheimer's panoramic paintings of the Hunters Point Shipyard force a viewer to question traditional notions of time and space, as well as the relationship between landscape photography and painting, history, memory, and illusion. This feat is accomplished though the lens of a camera, the painter's hand, and the riddle of the sphinx.3
Wider Views of Urban San Francisco is on view through March 6, 2011 at ArtZone 461 Gallery in San Francisco. An additional exhibition of Randy Beckleheimer's paintings can be seen in the lobby at 425 Market Street.
1. Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (Orlando: Harcourt Books, 1974), 44.
2. Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (New York: Viking, 2003), 160.
3. Lani Asher had an art studio at Hunters Point Shipyard for eighteen years, but has since moved her studio to the Mission district. For four years, she was a member of the Citizens Advisory Board, created by the federal Superfund law, which advised the Navy on toxic cleanup efforts. She was also an active member of Communities for a Better Environment, an environmental health and justice organization. She thanks Nan Kornfeld and shipyard artist Larry Morace for their insightful comments.