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Faces That Reveal Rigorous Restraint

Dan McCleary set aside painting to create works on paper that eschew narrative and focus on technique.

February 11, 2001|HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP | Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is a regular contributor to Calendar

Along with the pungent odors of paint and thinner, Dan McCleary's studio is redolent with the smell of baking bread. His tiny storefront is next to a Mexican pastry shop near MacArthur Park. He is so familiar with the owners that when he wants a cup of coffee, he walks behind the counter and helps himself.

A person getting a cup of coffee is a recurrent theme in McCleary's paintings along with everyday experiences like going to the bank or waiting at a restaurant. His scenes of expressionless people engaged in mundane activities can be compared to the paintings of Edward Hopper; they seem to capture an enigmatic moment of a story in progress. In last May's Art in America, Nancy Grimes wrote, "Modest and persuasive, McCleary's paintings seize upon marginal people and events and transform them into compelling visual spectacles."

At the moment, however, the canvases are in storage to make room for the artist's latest efforts--works on paper. The walls of his studio are hung with portraits in pencil of young men and women, watercolors of fruit and the Italian countryside, and a series of black-and-white etchings of the cast-sugar skulls made in Mexico for the Day of the Dead. All are on view at L.A.'s Kohn Turner Gallery.

McCleary, 49, describes the works on paper as "just pictures," meaning a return to the basics of his craft. Most are about the size of a sheet of typing paper and similar to one another in composition--just a single object in the center of the page. The pencil portraits have the closest tie to his paintings, but in this case, all suggestion of narrative is removed from the familiarly impassive faces. Instead, the artist's attention is sharply focused on portrait technique and the quality of the pencil line.

With his bristly salt-and-pepper hair and blue eyes, McCleary, like the people he portrays, seems genial and self-effacing. He shyly offers background on the framed portraits on his walls, saying that he chooses models who "have a face that will be interesting to draw." His subjects include his 13-year-old niece, his friend's son Casey, and a former art student, Naomi Saunders, whom he has painted many times. Each needs to be someone with whom he wants to spend some 10 hours, in sittings of two hours each.

Unlike many figurative artists today, McCleary refuses to work from photographs. Why? "Because it is important to have the person here for the connection," he says. "There is more information when you are working from life, such as the shadows and the light. I think in a way we've been duped into thinking that a photograph is an accurate image of something. But it isn't.

"A camera is a myopic machine that records an impression in one-thirtieth of a second so that is all the information that a photograph will give you," he adds. "When you are looking at a person in three dimensions with your two eyes, you start seeing more in every sense of the word.

"Also, when a person sits for six or more hours, they change," he continues. "They become more relaxed, I become more relaxed. I start working at a certain distance from them and by the end, I'm like two inches from their nose."

Mischievously, he confesses, "Also, I'm a voyeur. It's an amazing opportunity to stare at somebody for hours, in a way that we are not permitted to do in society."

For all the time and intimacy of these sessions, McCleary's portraits are rigorously restrained. "I try to find a balance between a formal, analytical meaning and the emotion I feel for the person," he explains. "I'm a prude in a way. I don't like to show much. It's that French idea that you don't reveal things, you talk around them. I can't stand for things to be explicit. It's so much better when they are reserved."

With such criteria, it is not surprising that McCleary cites as influences three artists who are prized for their reductive style: Hopper, Edouard Manet and Jan Vermeer. "They all dealt with restraint," he says. "No bravura."


It was during a trip to Oaxaca last February that McCleary worked with a printer to make the etchings of sugar skulls, concentrating on the quality and density of line. "I had been looking at the etchings of Giorgio Morandi," he says. "He was really obsessed with using line to create areas of dark and light."

Most of the rest of McCleary's group of "just pictures" stem from another trip, a recent sojourn in Italy. He spent six weeks there last fall, courtesy of Federico Frediani, a patron who underwrote the trip in exchange for some of the work. McCleary made pilgrimages to Florence to see the Brancacci Chapel and its frescoes by Masaccio, as well as the wealth of other art in the city. Struck by the frescoes' simple, devotional grace, he returned home to paint a single pear, apple or orange. He was attentive to the edge of the shape and play of light against the table and wall. They were like a sorbet after a rich meal, in this case, the visual richness of Florence.

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