Exhibit explores beauty in the mundane

“Every Day Sacred,” a USC Fisher Museum of Art exhibition featuring paintings by Los Angeles artist Dan McCleary, immediately engages the viewer with subtle intensity. Upon entry, the viewer is visually arrested by the woman in McCleary’s painting “Seven-Eleven.” She stares with a look of intense concentration, causing the viewer in turn to examine the painting with equal focus. The strikingly rich greenness of the woman’s uniform catches one’s attention, as does the subtle symmetry and balance throughout the painting.

This is the genius of McCleary’s work — with the theme of focus and introspection, his paintings capture the remarkability of everyday events. They engage the audience with seemingly mundane scenes even as his subjects engage intensely with their surroundings.

“Dan McCleary’s paintings, his minimalistic and elegant compositions with classical and art historical references, have gravitas and authenticity, and speak to a contemporary sensibility,” said exhibit curator Ariadni Liokatis. “They are intimate and psychologically charged portraits of the human condition, and a celebration of the ‘every day sacred.’”

“Every Day Sacred” is located behind the two galleries of permanent exhibitions at the Fisher Museum. The first room of the solo exhibition includes an introductory sign written by Liokatis, which describes the artist’s background information and key themes. This room contains five paintings, one of which is “Seven-Eleven.” The uniformed woman gazes inexorably from the viewer’s left, causing the viewer to pause just as he enters the exhibit.

The next room is a larger gallery containing 11 paintings. It is this second room of the exhibit that truly showcases McCleary’s themes of private introspection and the sacred nature of ordinary events. The larger number of paintings causes the viewer to notice similar motifs. In each piece, people are engrossed in contemplation. In some of them, the articles of contemplation are physical objects: a statue, as in “The Blue Guide II;” a card, as in “The Performer;” or their fingernails, as in “The Manicure.” In some, the subjects focus on things unpictured, as in “The Channel Surfer,” where a reclining man gazes at some object offscreen. In “The Dancers,” the man depicted focuses on himself, with closed eyes and a look of thoughtful introspection.

In some paintings, such as “Protection,” characters gaze unapologetically at the viewer. McCleary depicts this direct gaze with subtle power, as if the person were studying the audience or waiting patiently for the viewer to speak. The atmosphere of the gallery is profoundly meditative, accented by its simple and clean layout. The paintings are evenly spaced in a straightforward manner, as if mirroring the candid way in which McCleary’s characters inspect their audience. Even the objects in McCleary’s paintings sustain a sense of concentration — McCleary’s interior landscapes are free of clutter, causing the viewer to focus on the isolated soap dispenser or Styrofoam cup.

This symbiotic relationship that McCleary creates between the paintings’ focused mood and viewers’ contemplative perception draws out the curious significance of everyday moments. The characters and their undivided absorption, whether concerning physical objects or their own thoughts, invite the audience into their cognitive ruminations. The viewer is led to examine the characters’ settings in order to discover why they are thus engrossed. Additionally, McCleary’s spatial use of minimalist isolation encourages the audience to become aware of the peculiar loveliness of everyday objects, which would normally remain unnoticed. The spotlight is on the underlying sense of balanced symmetry of the cash registers and coffee pots in “Seven-Eleven,0” on the contrast between a red nail polish bottle and a white tablecloth in “The Manicure.”

McCleary’s paintings point to the extraordinary and the deeply psychological within the superficially mundane. The unique magnetism of moments that would normally shy away from advertisement are showcased — the private minute before a performer goes onstage, the man weighing himself in a bathroom. “Every Day Sacred” urges the audience to decelerate and to realize the latent epiphanies in the creases of a sleeve and color value of a uniform.

To complement the themes of introspection and awareness of beauty in “Every Day Sacred,” the Fisher Museum will offer a series of mindfulness classes, beginning Jan. 15, from 10 to 11:20 a.m. Classes will be held in the Dan McCleary exhibition space.

“As the title of the exhibition indicates, [McCleary’s] work speaks to the ‘every day sacred,’ the appreciation of life’s quotidian moments, a reflection on the value of one’s daily and familiar experiences and encounters,” Liokatis said. “Mindful meditation encourages one to pay attention to present moment experiences, to pause and connect with one’s inner experience in order to be more engaged and feel fully present in one’s life.”

“Every Day Sacred” opens Jan. 14, 2015, and will close March 7, 2015. In “A Conversation with Dan McCleary” at the Fisher Museum, McCleary will give a talk about his paintings on Feb. 3, 2015 at 1 p.m.