Like a diary splayed open to various...

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Like a diary splayed open to various pages, Manny Farber’s new paintings interweave explicitly autobiographical nuggets with ambiguous references to places, personalities and experiences. The candid and the coded intermingle as they float within the shallow spaces of the paintings, insights into the artist’s life as much as independent arrangements of colors and forms on a two-dimensional surface.

Farber, exhibiting at the Dietrich Jenny Gallery (660 Ninth Ave.) through June 4, lays out facts and feelings as if he were in a constant process of unpacking his world, sorting through the pieces and distinguishing the keepers from the trash. Yet the flowers, notes, scraps and cut-out shapes spread across these canvases fall into no hierarchical order. By painting his still-lifes as if seen from above, Farber evades the traditional practice of emphasizing and subordinating, foregrounding and backgrounding subjects. Instead, the elements collaborate as equals, aligning to form visual paths through the paintings, leading the eye up to the edges, then back through the middle, to rest briefly on a single object then, with a hummingbird’s impatience, moving on.

Farber, who lives in San Diego and has distinguished himself over half a century through overlapping careers as an art and film critic, painter and teacher, knows about moving on while looking back. In one wide, horizontal painting, the artist’s notes to himself chronicle his concerns, from the mundane to the self-reflective.


Despite the bitter reflections among his scattered notes, Farber reveals himself to be a sucker for life, and his paintings exude enthusiasm. Exotic floral bouquets spill across the surface, already emboldened by background planes of intense orange, red or blue. That these works are as much about formal exploration as psychic excavation is abundantly clear in a series of smaller paintings that combine less specifically personal objects such as plates, fruit and matchbook covers. The dynamics of color, placement and framing override the artist’s intimate symbolism in these works, as violet plates and green-lipped mussels vie for attention against saturated orange grounds. Farber’s short, choppy brushstrokes lend the forms a sketchy, roughly hewn texture, an indeterminacy that suits his own prolific energies.

Inspired by the Impressionist painters of France, Californians at the turn of the century began taking their easels outdoors to capture the shifting nuances of light and color on the land. Their sensitivity to the subtleties and quiet grandeur of nature is well catalogued in a selection of “California Plein Air Paintings” at the Orr’s Gallery (2222 Fourth Ave.) through May 31.

At its best, this newly widespread emphasis on working directly from nature imbued painting with a freshness and immediacy unfelt in earlier, academic styles. William Ritschel’s “Coast, Carmel Highlands” epitomizes this approach in its loose collection of dabs and twists of pure pigment. Although not painted en plein air (in the open air), Franz Bischoff’s 1912 “Still Life With Roses” is also composed of the lush brushstrokes that typify the plein air painters’ directness and fidelity to sensual impressions. Each of the roses’ pink petals catches a glimmer of light or buries one in shadow.

When applied to the soft contours of California’s hills and canyons, this emphasis on the nuances of light in a particular place and time inspired countless images of mustard yellow fields, lavender-shadowed valleys and rows of majestic, drab green eucalyptus. The drama of the day’s shifting light fills the air in these painted odes to vision and color.

Nevertheless, the reverence these artists felt for the beauty of nature and its faithful transcription doesn’t prevent some of their works from lapsing into a bland palatability or exaggerating nature’s spectacle to a stylized extreme. There are enough gems in this show, however, such as Charles Reiffel’s small slices of urban life, to dismiss these saccharine statements as simply exploitations of an exceedingly popular style.