Michael Hirschfeld Gallery
May 2-June 8 | Reviewed by Thomasin Sleigh

Etiquette for the Homesick is a great name for an exhibition. The show combines the work of Massey graduates Caroline McQuarrie and Genevieve Packer under the curatorial premise of the ‘darker face’ of the decorative arts. It has a great catalogue essay by Abby Cunnane and the work in the show is strong.

Despite all this, I left with the nagging sensation that I’d seen this show somewhere before. I’ve read about a renegotiation of craft so frequently, and the proliferation of craft markets here is testament to the strength and talent of our crafting communities. Craft based art has battled its way back to its rightful position within the discourse of fine arts, and I’m not disputing its importance or relevance, I guess recently I’ve been waiting for something challenging and entirely new from craft mediums.

Genevieve Packer’s work subtly walks the line between the aesthetic and the functional. The decision was made to present her milk jugs, rings, printed scarves and bags in glass cases reminiscent of museum displays, which further encourages their reading as objects both of aesthetic value and some sort of prior usefulness.

Packer is a collector of cultural signs and symbols which supposedly give us a sense collective identity. Fantails, glass milk bottles, and rural landscapes are here printed on fabric, paper, and recreated on rings. Working from a very pop standpoint, Packer’s work is a cheeky comment on how these symbols are adopted and exploited within New Zealand society.

Similarly, Caroline McQuarrie’s work reuses familiar images, this time though of family portraits, and overlays them with thick cross-stitch. The stitching simultaneously breaks apart the images and pulls them together. McQuarrie links people in the groupings by sewing long stitches from face to face, materially suggesting relationships between them. But the actual piercing of the photographs by a needle is aggressive and harmful to the images – McQuarrie suggests the complications inherent in familial associations.

McQuarrie also has a series of photograms in the show. The titles of these are heavy with meaning; Sharpen them with lies, Shine your teeth ‘til meaningless, Drag your blanket blindly, seem to me to invoke insidious instructions from childhood. In these personal works McQuarrie marries an image of an old home with an image of her family. Photograms are a method of photography whereby the negative and positive elements of the image are inverted. The perspective, depth and composition are therefore confused in this series and the artist cleverly elides saccharine autobiographical meaning.

McQuarrie and Packer’s work presented in Etiquette for the Homesick sets up an interesting dialectic – Packer is more interested in the material outcomes of a collective social memory, and McQuarrie in her own past and relationships. However, I failed to feel that the craft aspect of this work was really marking out any new territory, the work here was too polite and not entirely comfortable with its chosen mediums to successfully convey a sense of subversion or reworking.

The Michael Hirschfeld gallery is a funny little space, and it is sometimes hard to get a cohesive sense of the exhibitions in there. Happily, the gallery is about the get a revamp, so this space can better present and discuss the work of Wellington creative practitioners.