New Yorkers given to frequenting their local coffee shop will recognize–and puzzle over–the environs depicted in Dan McCleary’s paintings. His canvases, on view at David Beitzel Gallery, are populated by napkin dispensers and coffee pots, formica, styrofoam, cooks and cashiers. These locales, as portrayed by Mr. McCleary, are uncharacteristically denuded of abundance and activity. There are no countertops loaded with baked goods, nor is there the cacophony of orders being placed and others ready for delivery. The pictures are regulated and immaculate–the smell of fried food never enters them. Mr. McCleary posits a greasy spoon that is coordinated by Euclidian logic, a world where every pink cake box is invested with almost sacrosanct density.
Mr.McCleary’s images are patently counterfeit. His tableaux are painted from sets the artist has constructed in the studio. Although there is submerged drama within them, the paintings aren’t, strictly speaking, psychological narratives. The taut confrontation between cashier and customer in Bakery (1999) has little to do with the travails of a bad cup of coffee. It is, instead, a tersely poised encounter between models and props. (Mr. McCleary’s props often have more character than his models.)
This open-faced superficiality is brittle and deftly tuned. The more blatant Mr. McCleary is in his contrivance–the more he underlines, for instance, his reliance on Renaissance models–the more his compositions generate their own pictorial rationale. Mr. McClearly can be likened to a puppeteer who demonstrates the manner in which his figures are manipulated rather than using them to invoke a convincing fiction.
Bathed in a cool and even light, Mr. McCleary’s fabricated scenarios are infused with a taciturn anxiety. However remote they may be, the paintings are, at their core, compacted with an attenuated humanity. This quality makes the paintings more than just formalist machines, although Mr. McCleary is, as a mechanic, canny and sure.
It’s no coincidence, I think, that the weakest paintings depict surroundings higher up on the socioeconomic stratum. When the artist paints a tuxedoed maitre d’ or a gallery reception, the pictures become stilted–even for an artist as sober as this one. Plainly, Mr. McCleary feels a kinship with social arenas that are less assuming. Besides, the sharp colors and slick surfaces of Dunkin’ Donuts are better suited to his vision than the sleek, somber tones of more fashionable settings.
Mr. McCleary’s canvases can feel pinched in their calculation, but once drawn into his astringent world, we get caught up in its deadpan pleasures. The paintings are more resilient than we might, at first, expect.
(c) 2000 Mario Naves
A version of the article first appeared in the December 27, 1999-January 3, 2000 edition of The New York Observer.