by Josef Woodard, Santa Barbara NewsPress Correspondent

It is common knowledge that Santa Barbara and the outlying environs are home to, and also the frequent subject of, a sizable population of painters. Many are competent and affectionate surveyors of the celebrated landscape and townscape here. Few, though, are able to transcend what amounts to a positive type of visual noise, and the inevitable banks of clichés lurking around the business of pretty landscape picture-making.

John Comer is undeniably one of those, a longtime local favorite who lends freshness of vision and assured craft in his work. A current exhibition of new paintings at the Waterhouse Gallery, where he last had a one-man show almost three years ago, shows what the fuss is about.

There’s also something poetic just about seeing Comer’s work in the heart of the downtown area, in this gallery currently celebrating its 20th anniversary. Santa Barbara is well served by both this painter and this space. Walk several yards from this gallery and you find the very view depicted in Comer’s painting “Library and Courthouse at Santa Barbara,” taking in both those local landmarks by peering down the entryway to the parking garage. The dappled shade of eucalyptus trees are reflected in his bumpy, dabbing brushwork, typical of his sense of continuity between form and content.

Whether his subject is town or country, Comer’s plein-air paintings tend to be luminous and colorenriched, painted with an uncanny rightness in terms of his palette and use of a brush. But there’s also something extra: Comer has an eye for the slightly peculiar perspective, almost as if he matches his innate painterly skills with the discerning, spontaneously compositional eye of a photographer.

Comer gathers expressive strength by avoiding the obvious, in-your-face views. In “Arlington,” we see the Arlington Theatre not as a mighty towering icon, but as a part of the whole, in a sideways view down Arlington Court. “The Granada in Autumn” views that historical landmark building (historic by young Southern California standards) through the ephemeral scrim of autumn leaves, and “El Capitan from the Tracks” views its coastal destination with the framing device of machinery, albeit it the romantic emblem of a railroad semaphore, in the foreground.

Other calm corners of Santa Barbaran life include the humbly rustic and affecting small painting “Barn, Sedgwick Preserve” and “Surfer at Refugio.” The latter includes a rare human presence in Comer’s work, but is viewed from an almost voyeuristic distance. The surfer is almost more a compositional prop and a metaphorical ploy, as a transitional element between human activity and natural forces.

Pleasant and just slightly tart surprises slip into the easygoing exhibition, as well, most notably in the painting of the Micheltorena overpass (actually painted before the renovation of that bridge, making this a historical document as well as a cool painting). Here, the idea of the angular photographer’s eye and a more urban sensibility come into play in a painting with an offbeat subject and point of view. But it also remains true to the heart of Comer’s mission by taking heed of the lush mountain periphery which so dramatically frames the Santa Barbara experience for artists and the rest of us who care to pay attention.
Among his self-admitted influences, Comer counts Ray Strong, the influential plein-air painter presently being courted for work now continuing into his 100th year. Certainly, the passionate twin embrace of nature and painting bond the two.