Friday, October 5, 2012

Picasso, Shark Week, Hot Wax, and Laundry

What the AVC Art Gallery Shares in Common with the Norton Simon Museum of Art

On the very comprehensive website run by the Academy of American Poets, there's a side feature that organizes poems by category. Heartbreak of course is near the top, as is whatever holiday will approach soon --- yes, there's an icon to click for a list of poems about Halloween --- and this master list of options (one assumes) caters to what the Academy thinks the average person might need, poetry-wise. These pre-sorted lists reflect social expectations, not an actual survey of what poets these days most often do (there is no link for poems about semiotics or roadkill or even the painter Cezanne, even though all of those subjects are ever-present in English-language poetry), and so, because of that expectation, it's not surprising that there is even a link for poems about sharks.

And it turns out, this has indeed been a fruitful area of inquiry for modern writers, and the website editors are able to present to the Internet public not just an essay about sharks in poetry, but clickable links to about 35 examples of shark poetry.

Alligators and tigers, one hopes, will soon be added next.

What there is not up yet is a category or link for laundry poems. This seems entirely unfair. First, of course, it's something we all do --- except I suppose the very rich. On the opposite end, the poorest side of society may do more than their fair share of laundry, since in American history, it was something we farmed out to the marginalized and the disenfranchised, including African-Americans, widows, and recent Chinese immigrants. I once read in a history of the U.S. cavalry about a fort whose laundry was all done by a local woman, assisted by her loyal husband. It all came to a furious stop when it turned out the laundress was a man as well, in drag, living in happy harmony with another man. They moved away and set up shop elsewhere.

In London two hundred years ago the wealthiest of the central Londoners shipped their laundry out to the then-rural woodlands of Hampstead Heath, where a soot-free breeze could air-dry laundry washed in artesian springs. While it solved a necessary problem, the rich though were a bit uncomfortable about this, being upset by the idea of their intimate sheets and fine undergarments laid out to dry on bushes for all to see. There might have been a good market for some kind of service that would have guaranteed confidentiality, a service advertising, let us imagine, that the work would only be done in an enclosed courtyard, with the linens being only handled by disgraced aristocrats who had fallen on hard times. If you have a time machine, feel free to go back to those days and make your fortune. Please bring back an original Turner or two for me, as finder's fee.

The second reason the poetry site's exclusion is unfair is that it turns out laundry remains a very productive subject for art to explore. Luckily, the AVC art gallery is helping us to appreciate this fact.

The current show features work done in encaustic, a two-thousand-year-old method that uses heated wax to blend and bind color and, sometimes, collage or fabric. It's a two-person show, quite nicely framed and hung. Here is the announcement card.

Both artists work with interior spaces, but Erin has an especially poetic subject: piles of dirty laundry. Why laundry? You can read her Artist's Statement (on display in the Gallery on an east wall) to find out. Meanwhile, here are some shots from the show up now.

Colors may be muted a bit here, as I did not want to use flash inside the Gallery. In the actual show things are more vivid, more present. Laundry never looked so interesting or so good.

This is a show that bridges several traditions. Encaustic, of course, has its own history, one that the show encourages students and visitors to investigate. (I hate to say it, but Wikipedia is not a bad place to start on this topic. There is also a narrative panel inside the Campus Art Gallery itself.)

Meanwhile, laundry itself is a noble and worthy subject for art. Picasso painted laundry workers in his blue period, and an images search for the subject of women and laundry or women and ironing shows his painting, along with work by Degas. Here's a typical search hit.

If one had a magic museum that could assemble work from major lenders world-wide, this could be a very interesting show to curate. I am not an expert, but I have picked up a few reproductions myself, including from a museum in Madrid. Here's a shot from the laundry room at my house:

 We have very good laundry art locally, the most famous of which is The Ironers, 1884, by Degas, usually on display at the Norton Simon in Pasadena. Here is a scan of that painting, taken from one of their "masterpieces" books.

The Shakers, in their purity and industry, never saw a household task they couldn't make more efficient or more elegant. Back when irons had to be heated on the stove, one at a time, they figured out a way to heat the laundry room and keep multiple irons ready at once: a large, central, furnace.

This image comes from a lovely 1987 book titled Shaker: Life, Work, and Art, by Sprigg, Larkin, and Freeman (whose names sound like a law firm out of Melville). It was borrowed from the book donation cart by Santi Tafarella, and then borrowed from him by me --- yes, it is on its way back to the donation cart very soon! Until then I have to face a terrible choice: of my "to do" chores today, which comes first . . . grading papers, or doing my laundry. Uncertain how to prioritize, I sent an email to ace English teacher Scott Covell. "Oh, that's an easy one," he answered back. "Don't do either. It's nice out today. Just go ride your bike!"

Never one to ignore input from my esteemed colleagues, off I go.


  1. Mindsets & Lifestyles have to change....or it will keep passing on to all generations...Praying that change will come.... La Femme En Chemise

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