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Uncomfortable at Home: Genevieve Packer and Caroline McQuarrie

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By Mark Amery <em>Courtesy of The Dominion Post</em> Currently showing at <strong>City Gallery's

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By Mark Amery Courtesy of The Dominion Post

Currently showing at City Gallery's Michael Hirschfeld Gallery is Etiquette for the Homesick, an exhibition of recent work by a designer, Genevieve Packer and an artist, Caroline McQuarrie.

Immediately the spectre of the 'is design art?' debate looms. Frankly there is nothing more stultifying, and I will nip it in the bud this week by saying this. Firstly, art and design often come from similar inspiration and a dedication to craft. And secondly, while design may have to sacrifice a full exploration of meaning and feeling to meet in its shape a comfortable, familiar function, let's not forget that art can also be restricted in shape to fulfill a decorative function. Its a question of degrees; and the richness of the work in the eye of the beholder.This exhibition makes an excellent job of bringing these ideas out. It has no truck with marking boundaries between art and design and instead focuses on the interesting commonalities between Packer and McQuarrie's work, which includes an interest in playing with objects with strong domestic and nostalgic associations.

This is an inspired pairing. Both are Master graduates of Wellington's Massey University School of Creative Arts, where the boundary rope is regularly twisted - McQuarrie in fine arts (following completing a BFA in photography), and Packer in design. Both now tutor in their disciplines at Massey.

In McQuarrie's current work photography meets embroidery. Often the personal and handmade are combined to powerful effect, highlighting that a photograph can in fact distance you from a person while the work of the needle can be painfully intimate.

In the brilliant series A Singularity McQuarrie has cross-stitched in rough tapestry wool over the surface of group photographs of her and her family from 1980 to 2000. The cross-stitching covers the edges of the photographs with a full replication of the colours below it, providing a warm nostalgic cocoon for the family in the images centre. Then the stitching becomes increasingly erratic and playful in its grafitti-ising of the figures, creating arresting visual and emotional tensions across the images. While the family don their smiley masks for the photographer the stitching unpicks this happy façade by stitching across them (to prick your father's grey beard with grey thread here feels\ as charming as it is disturbing). Yet it also emphasises their bonds by linking one figure to another with single threads. This is at once homage to the warmth of home as it is a questioning of the attempts that are made to paper over its cracks.

These ideas are taken further in the series How to Fight Loneliness. Again there is an interest in the fabric of an image and how it affects our reading, with twinned photographs of homes and portraits reworked in different textile forms but then reprinted in black and white as photograms.

This series is far more exploratory. With each image cushion-sized there is a cover of comfort, but the white heat of the photogram scorches these memories with patterns that break up the familiar into something which is more uneasy than decorative. A grinning young couple turn out to be stitched together out of something as old fashioned as a doily, while a house fragments into rich flecks, as if being broken down by fire.

McQuarrie's skills as a photographer are on display in a more conventional sense in a series of delicate untitled images of nature set in crochet squares, evoking the scenic imagery of cup mats. The filigree of light and plants plays with that of the sewing. There's a meditation on the beauty of the things around us but also an otherworldliness that leads you towards the signs of human disturbance and the uncanny.

Genevieve Packer's design doesn't have this darkness or distress for me (as writer Abby Cunnane seems to contend) but it does provide strong meditation on the use today of nostalgic domestic icons. Old milk and cream bottles are recast with small beaks. They become more efficient pourers but they also chirp together like endangered birds. Recycling is suggested and Packer also takes the old wire four pint milk bottle crate we took to the gate and reuses it as a dynamic, almost constructivist like pattern for wallpaper, broaches and bags.

Utopia, Packer's work suggests, may be found closer to home than one might suspect. And while her Scenic Series wallpaper might seem at first simply a fun, fluid treatment of old quarter acre pavlova paradise dreams of holidays in the country, the complexity of its silhouette play ensures that each time you look its familiar icons morph serpentine into something new.

Etiquette for the Homesick, Michael Hirschfeld Gallery, until 8 June

Detail from Centre of Mass, 1988, Caroline McQuarrie, 2007. Image courtesy of the artist.

07/05/08

Written by

Mark Amery

7 May 2008

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.