YOU DON'T have to be a movie buff to enjoy the paintings of film critic Manny Farber, but it helps. Farber, well-known for his earlier, offbeat critical writings in The New Republic, Time and Artforum, is showing several large paintings at Diane Brown -- all strewn with images from his headful of movie memories and, seemingly, from his pockets. There are toy trains, trucks, school rulers, bottles of "white out" and other assorted junk spread out much as the contents of a young boy's pockets might be spread out over a dresser top.
But despite the scattered look, Farber's paintings are carefully organized into spatially ambiguous works that look like airplane views of an electric train setup. Bits of track chug across all the canvases at various curves and angles, dividing the surface into visually digestible segments. Within them are carefully laid out the aforementioned odd-lot of items, all mixed up with images of people brought to life from Farber's enviable visual store of film memories. "Honeymoon Killers," for example, titled after the movie of the same name, anecdotally recounts odd tales involving railroad tracks and obscene acts and several gory murders in progress.
It is not necessary to be familiar with that movie to know that something awful is going on in "Honeymoon Killers," despite the deceptively playful setting. "From Bunuel," however, is one of several works devoted to specific filmmakers, and since the works are filled with specific references, the pleasure of decoding them gives an added kick. For comic relief -- or possibly out of pure irreverence -- copulating couples from Japanese how-to "Pillow Books" (and animals similarly occupied) turn up frequently, wholly out of context, just like almost everything else in these highly idiosyncratic works.
"These paintings are not to be read as movies, but movies are often the subject matter," says the amiable Farber, a former Abstract Expressionist and color-field painter. In fact, however, his works are profoundly related to film, for the eye wanders over them much as a camera might travel in making a tracking shot, a filmmaking technique to which he makes punning reference in his constant use of railroad track. These intriguing paintings will be on view at 406 Seventh St. NW through Feb. 4, 11 a.m. to p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.