Time was when appreciating contemporary art according to subject matter was regarded as gauche and irrelevant. Neo-Expressionism has changed all that, at least as much as did Surrealism and Pop before it. So we are free to be fascinated by the milieu depicted in 25 recent paintings and graphics by L.A. artist Dan McCleary.

He opens a rare look into a subculture that appears to be lower middle class and ambiguously ethnic, ranging in possibility through Americans of Mexican, Italian or Philippine descent. Paintings like "The Visit" capture an ambiance of East L.A. clinging to marginal respectability. Relationships seem ordinary, but we know that they're complex and lethal beneath their modest, threadbare decency.

"The Dance" is nothing but a party Polaroid of a balding guy dancing with a girl who might be his niece, but the thing feels creepy and incestuous. McCleary paints a subject he calls Michael Abatemarco five times. Although it's just a gentle rendering of a youth, the repetition feels compulsively, guiltily fascinated.

Where a Neo-Expressionist like Eric Fischl creates clout by blatant depiction of Freudian fantasy, McCleary casts an aura of dread with muffled understatement. In "The Crime," you can barely tell it's a scene of a kid being booked.

The secret of compelling subject matter finally resides, of course, in the way it's treated. In some pictures we see McCleary attracted to Alex Katz's confessional pictorial candor. In "He Goes, She Stays," the two monumental figures virtually paraphrase Balthus' smothered eroticism.

McCleary's straightforward and unassuming painting manner is appealing and constantly improving, but what really keeps us interested is its fine-tuned revelation of a way of life that we know exists. It's like a poor man's version of the ambiance in the "Godfather" films, where conventional pious religious and familial postures are rotted through with intrigue, guilt and lust for revenge. (Newspace Gallery, 5241 Melrose Ave., to April 6.)

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