Manny Farber was ill-served by last year's MOCA retrospective. Through a combination of misguided curating and repetitive overkill, the film critic/painter's still lifes came across as hermetic labyrinths of obscure movie references and autobiographical self-indulgence. Seen in a more intimate gallery setting, Farber's latest work proves he is actually a provocative landscapist: not of sublime nature, but of visual language and mental processes.
Using circular and rectangular canvases, he sets up an overhead perspective on visual clutter, an untidy desk top or floor. Flower arrangements, fruit, cut-out stencils and jotted notes to himself are arranged centrifugally toward the edge of the frame against bright, often divided monochromatic backgrounds. This melange of floating signs is designed to encourage free association in endless reverberations.
The eye is encouraged to wander over the surface of the painting, to consider information "off-screen," yet also to focus on his almost fetishistic weaving of detail. The trap lies in the fact that Farber the linguist is more often than not contradicted by Farber the painter. Thus written references to Corot, Duccio and Giotto are belied by the essentially Matisse-like flatness of composition and predilection for hard edges. Similarly, a memo warning of "Death by Masking Tape" does little to prevent Farber from using the material as a narrative "link" between objects. Perhaps the key to his work lies after all in his film criticism. An advocate of 1950s B movies, Farber is basically a B-movie painter. Somewhat crude as a stylist, his subjects are usually quite ordinary, and his compositions are dominated by his mise-en-scene . He is the Raoul Walsh of the art world. (Krygier/Landau Contemporary Art, 7416 Beverly Blvd., to Jan. 9.)