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A Portrait of Laundry

No subject is ordinary after Jamie Wyeth has painted it, and this 1972 work is a case in point. This is a painting, not of someone's housework, but of light, with a mystery.

Interestingly, two contemporaries of Wyeth, a choreographer and a novelist, have also found an everyday clothesline a good place for their ideas to take a fancy tightrope walk. Apparently, not even the most humdrum aspect of life is safe from artists' turning it into something else. But then, who couldn't use help with the laundry?

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Wyeth is not just showing off how he can paint draped fabric, or light and dark, or luscious loose brushstrokes and tiny dry ones. There is character here, too. This is not a study or a landscape; it is a portrait of laundry. Wyeth has given every fold the attention usually afforded the creases in a wise old face or the drapery on a Spanish infanta. ``Sheets and Cases'' has it all. But it is what he left out that makes the painting mysterious and answers the question, why laundry?

He put in so much. Dark pinetree branches crowd the background, and the little bites of light that come through, in their zigzag pattern, give one the sense of jostling movement in a sea breeze. The grass is a masterpiece. This patch of yard seems to have gotten as much blade-by-blade coverage as one of those small chunks of turf Durer studies so intimately. But Wyeth has made his grass more grasslike. It meekly blends into soft, dry fur so that, although every blade is there, you see it all without looking at each one.

The grass and trees are just the straight men for the exuberant laundry. The pillowcases are like buckets of sunlight. The sheets swoosh and wallow in it. They look loose and easy, although they must have been hard to paint. All this light and calm movement is implied by a precious few gray shadows and daisy-white highlights. In its simplicity, it is enchanting.

But all these details don't explain the painting's comfy eeriness. That effect comes from what you don't see. Wyeth painted the collapsible clothesline at such an angle that you do not see the base inserted in the ground. The laundry just hovers on upreaching metal arms. Was it hung up, or did it swoop down?

The shining aluminum and taut ropes give it an appealingly alien look, like a homemade spacecraft. We don't see the sun. Is the laundry reflecting it, or does the extraordinary, serene glow have its source in another galaxy? The metal arms reach up and out with a peculiar poignancy. Is it trying to phone home?

The elements are balanced with an appealing tension. The dark wildness of the trees nearly menaces the white sheets, so domestic and orderly. The jangle of sky that comes through the branches implies that this is a nice moment in a weather pattern that could turn nasty. But Wyeth's humor tames the wild and invigorates the domestic. If that laundry is from outer space, you feel it's a sensible alien, one that knows enough to bask in the sun.

Jamie Wyeth's paintings often have a story or a mystery about them. If you have ever hung up laundry, ``Sheets and Cases'' will be true to your experience. The only mystery is why hanging out laundry is so satisfying. It is indeed a transporting experience, but it reminds me more of sailing than of interplanetary travel.

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The magic moment for me is when the dishtowels, T-shirts, socks, and pajamas suddenly belly out in the wind and start to move. It is like that great moment when you know you are under sail.

Wherever you're going, it's exciting. You look up past the ropes at a sky that suddenly matters. You check cloud formations and feel the wind coming down from Canada and out toward the Azores. At evening, if all goes well and the scattered showers were scattered elsewhere, you take in a dry load and feel like a seasoned sea dog who made port just before a nasty squall.

My laundry line happens to abut a quarter-mile track. The power-walkers' voices, which carry as well as voices over water, chat in many languages. This only encourages me.

As I bundle sheets into the basket, I am taking down the sails in a far, exotic land, more the stuff of paintings that Wyeth's grandfather, N.C. Wyeth did.

The thrill comes from the combination of an ordinary daily chore with the unpredictable power of the elements, hinted at by those dark pine trees in the painting.

An Army engineer I know sneaks home at lunch on a good drying day to put a load out. A carpenter and part-time farmer says drying laundry is like drying hay. My mother used to enjoy bad drying days even more. She had a dryer, but she hung out sheets all winter in winds that would frost a buffalo.

Another artist who evokes mystery and intrigue in the most ordinary of circumstances is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian novelist and Nobel-prize winner. Wyeth is subtle and naturalistic where Garcia Marquez ebulliently, sometimes raucously, practices a personal style critics have named ``magical realism.''

In Garcia Marquez's books, marvels are everyday occurrences told in a voice that is craftily childlike.

He, too, has found laundry a good vehicle for a flight of fantasy. In ``One Hundred Years of Solitude'' (Harper Collins, 1970), Remedios the Beauty is a problem to her large family because her beauty drives everyone crazy. She ascends to heaven while hanging out sheets.

Her mother-in-law, Ursula, ``watched Remedios the Beauty waving good-bye in the midst of the flapping sheets that rose up with her, abandoning with her the environment of beetles and dahlias and passing through the air with her as four o'clock in the afternoon came to an end, and they were lost forever with her in the upper atmosphere where not even the highest-flying birds of memory could reach her.''

Garcia Marquez seems to tie his bright and uneasy picture more firmly to earth when he adds that Remedios's sister-in-law, Fernanda, ``for a long time ... kept on praying to God to send her back her sheets.'' But this is just a trick; this homely detail just makes his tall story taller, the way Wyeth's crisp naturalism helps him haunt us more efficiently.

Mark Morris, being a dancer and choreographer who spends time in leotards (which must be hand-washed and line-dried), may have done more of his own laundry than the painter or novelist. This may explain his more direct approach in a 1986 dance he choreographed, ``Soap Powders and Detergents.'' In the process of sarcastically putting down a laundry-detergent commercial, he comes up with a dance drama that, perhaps in spite of itself, redeems the commercial's theme.

Morris turns the commercial's plot into a Greek drama. The proponents of a brand of soap give a housewife an inferior brand to test. It doesn't measure up. They return and offer her $100 to give up their brand. She refuses.

Morris has dancers wringing their hands and holding their heads at the thought of settling for a lesser detergent. They hold up sheets like a living clothesline and churn their limbs like the agitator in a washing machine. The protagonist journeys through the maze of sheets and emerges a heroine, carried out on other dancers' shoulders. She has come through a catharsis in both the Aristotelian and the Maytag sense of the word.

Morris used the soap commercial to make a point about how popular culture turns molehills of commerce into mountains of inflated significance. But his choreography, surprisingly beautiful and compelling, given the subject, moved the dance beyond satire. He took the soap commercial's themes of brand loyalty and superior product performance and created a dance about purity and steadfastness.

All three artists have given us much more than anyone has the right to expect from a washload. There is mystery, intrigue, and perhaps even salvation. Their work is inspiring precisely because they departed with such inspiration from their jumping-off point. They could create because they didn't have to think about the particulars of getting clothes clean and dry. This is a great gift to those of us who do.

As art imitates life, it also enhances it. Thanks to all these great works, we can feel the humorous mystery of Wyeth's sunlight as we reach up with a wet T-shirt or share the blessing of its grace with Remedios the Beauty.

Recollect in tranquility the stirring, cleansing motion of the dancers in their spin cycle, and in no time you're off on your own adventure. As for me, I prefer to just step out my back door and run away to sea for 20 minutes.

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