Ordinary Magic

Ordinary Magic installation view Treasure Room at the Galleries at The Interchurch Center, NYC

Ordinary Magic, a solo exhibition by Meridith McNeal curated by Jennifer Roberts with co-curator Marie Roberts at the Galleries at the Interchurch Center, 61 Claremont Avenue, Morningside Heights, New York, NY

A Magician of the Ordinary by Lisa Peet

A visitor to Meridith McNeal’s “Ordinary Magic,” on view at the Galleries of the Interchurch Center in Manhattan from July 20 through September 8, is offered a choice of two hallways approaching the show. Each is lined with vitrines featuring carefully curated arrangements of McNeal’s Magical Things paintings and Objects of Significance. Because this is not a fable or fairy tale, both paths are the right ones, leading to the Galleries’ aptly named Treasure Room, where McNeal’s larger Inside Outside window paintings hang on free-floating panels. But, as in a fairy tale, the “Ordinary Magic” on view is alchemical, imbuing everyday objects and views with their own totemic powers and providing the viewer with clues as to how the mundane can become extraordinary.

This deeply satisfying solo show gives McNeal the chance to do what she does best: illuminate commonplace objects and place them in conversation with each other, thus elevating the mundane. Her everyday items are honored without being precious, as reverential as votives and as self-assured as milagros. Each element in her personal major arcana is confident of its purpose in the world, but also doesn’t suffer from having a little glamour thrown its way.

Spread out among eye-level vitrines along each hallway, the Magical Things beguile the approaching viewer. These vibrant 12"x12" watercolors comprise several collections: the original series, which McNeal began during her first residency at the American Academy in Rome and continued once home in Brooklyn; Magical Things from My Mother’s House, painted as elegy and solace after her mother’s death; and Magical Things from Quarantine, created when the enforced sameness of staying home presented the chance—and the need—to study the quotidian items that became companions of sorts. From books to soup pots of fresh vegetables, jewelry to addressed envelopes, coffeepots to cats, these magical things are both familiar and, in the sense of objects given deeply personal agency, familiars. Like gems on velvet, each occupies particular space within its painting—a piece of patterned cloth, a mantlepiece, a stoop, a window frame—as if asserting its own utility and place in McNeal’s world, and, by extension, in ours.

Visitor in Ordinary Magic
Ordinary Magic vitrine installation view
Ordinary Magic installation view

These share vitrine space with Objects of Significance, small three-dimensional watercolor paper sculptures: hands proffering modest treasures, headdresses, birds. In one sequence, a cardinal turns into a teacup and flies away. Curator Jennifer Roberts, with co-curator Marie Roberts, has arranged each assemblage of objects and paintings with an eye toward colors and movement that compliment each other; no display is static, and together they pull the viewer toward the larger gallery and its treasures.

The window paintings, suspended and staggered throughout the space, offer their own Narnia effect. Without the customary frames and walls to situate and separate image from environment, they present as portals: to a Brooklyn bookshop, a flower-filled courtyard, an African drum store, an interior shadowed by a nighttime fire escape. Similarly, the fact that gallerygoers can walk behind as well as in front of the window paintings, many of which are life-sized or larger, adds to the ambiguity.

That question of where, exactly, we are in relation to what we think we see is amplified within the paintings, where reflections and shadows distort depth of field and pleasingly disorient the observer. McNeal’s compositions nod to the notion that frames do not always cleanly divide one world from another. Shop windows offer both the goods inside and the street behind the viewer; a door temptingly marked “PRIVATE” shares the canvas with a riverscape, fence, and buildings, revealing itself to be a shared reflection rather than a barrier. Is the perched white peacock we see in the glass on the store shelves, or in the tree behind us? The possibility of the latter reality turns the world wonderful for a moment.

These painted spaces ask the viewer to cast a backward glance over their shoulder or peer around the other side of the canvas, adjust their stance, and wonder, Where am I? At a historical moment that feels increasingly liminal, with a barrage of health, economic, civic, and environmental emergencies barely acknowledged and constantly obscured in the wider world, the feeling is not unfamiliar. Yet to be shown that uncertainty can be elegant, enigmatic, and delightful is a gift. And to be given insight into how everyday objects can transform into vessels of beauty and comfort is another. Both are sorely needed right now, and this Ordinary Magic is very welcome.

Meridith McNeal, Inside Outside Private (Red Hook, Brooklyn), 2017, watercolor on paper, 28x28"

Lisa Peet is a journalist, writer, visual artist, and editor. She is the Senior News Editor at Library Journal, and Senior Writer at Bloom, a website devoted to writers and artists who produced their first major work after age 40.