'Something Old, Something New: Caroline McQuarrie's Reasons for Silence', by Mark Bolland, Art New Zealand 138, Winter 2011 pp. 68-70.

Something old, something new, something borrowed & something blue
Caroline McQuarrie, Reasons for Silence
Toi Poneke Gallery, Wellington, October/November 2010

“These images are about trying to escape the loudness that we live with every day,” explains Caroline McQuarrie in a conversation with Deidra Sullivan that accompanied her recent exhibition at Toi Poneke Gallery. This small statement of intent perfectly encapsulates both the work on display and its relationship to a predominant culture that is largely loud, brash, unsubtle, and attention seeking. This loudness, then, does not solely refer to volume: Equally these characteristics are not just symptomatic of everyday urban or suburban living, but also of much recent art. They are also emblematic of our culture in general. McQuarrie, like other artists who engage with craftwork, history, and other similarly apparently anti-modern ideas, succeeds in finding good reason to get away from the noise.
Escaping the loudness, McQuarrie explores memory, domesticity, belonging and the values of handmade things. To do this, she uses of a very old photographic process, cyanotype from the medium’s infancy in the 1840’s, printed in striking blue monochrome onto second-hand textile artefacts. These materials, combined with the emptiness and quietness of the images, might imply a nostalgia for quieter times, long since past. However, these works actually point us to the small moments of silence that can be found in the present: The pauses for thought and daydream moments when both the present and the past escape us momentarily, are McQuarrie’s ‘reasons for silence’.
Printing cyanotypes onto textiles is a long process. The photograph is made, appropriately enough, on an old camera, using another antiquated technology; colour negative film. It is then scanned and inverted, then a new negative is made and printed onto the chosen textile via an emulsion that has been mixed by hand and then painted onto the material. Like the work itself, this protracted process in stark contrast to our culture of instant images and instant gratification. In equally stark contrast to commercially printed photographs on canvas or other materials, which lamely simulate the look of the handmade artefact, McQuarrie’s canvases are actually old; second-hand tablecloths, placemats, and so on from the 1940s and 1950s. These are often quite ornate and hand embroidered and sometimes augmented by the artist, in a manner that is appropriate to both the material and the images.
These textiles already have a history, and have already had one life. They were discarded and have been resurrected by the artist from their op-shop graves and reincarnated as the setting for various scenes that might be outtakes from anyone’s family album: A moment after a Christmas present has been unwrapped and then left under the tree; a recently vacated sandpit; and a portrait where the subject’s head has been cut off.
As we explore the exhibition, we are confronted, again and again, with empty, perhaps recently vacated, spaces. Rooms and gardens devoid of presence, or other domesticated spaces, such as a deserted picnic by a lake, an empty table in an anonymous yard, and an abandoned wheelbarrow in a garden. There are also small domestic still lives –a jug and some wool on a dresser, some boots on a porch, a pile of logs, and so on. These pictures are brought together in groups often using a set of tablemats or napkins, or as diptyches on tablecloths, and then given evocative and elusive titles like I tried to fake it but I got found out; The Gardener’s scar; and Reasons for Silence.
These vacated spaces make for appropriately quiet images, and the source of their quietness also gives them a strange relationship to time. Most photographs have a very apparent specific moment that they are tied to –the moment the shutter clicked, and this is intrinsic to our reading of them. These pictures, though, lack any indications as to their moment of genesis and could have been made at any point in the last fifty or sixty years or so. We can place them as belonging to a time after the textiles they are printed on were made, but there is little or nothing to tell us that these photographs were taken in the last three years. This has a destabilising effect on the viewer –the more we look, the less we seem to know.
The prevalence of domestic and domesticated spaces in McQuarrie’s pictures and their coupling with the household materials they’re printed on suggest that home, its immediate surroundings are where she finds, and where we in turn might find, ‘reasons for silence’. The silence McQuarrie seeks at home, and in others homes, is an antidote to the everyday hurly burly of urban capitalism and so is akin to the Buddhist ‘zen’ silence.
In her ‘A Book of Silence’, Sara Maitland distinguishes between numerous types of silence, including the Buddhist, Quaker and Trappist concepts. Trappist silence is, she observes, ‘about discipline’, whilst the Quakers’ is a ‘listening silence’, waiting for the voice from within that is no different from the ‘direct voice of God’. For Buddhists, though, Zen silence is a kind of protest against “the veils of illusion”. “You are silent in order to escape from the self and the dualisms of the world”. Zen silence is both an escape and a protest. That we might feel the need for a reason to seek it out is indicative of a culture where noise has become default, where TV screens chatter, machines and traffic hum, and adverts shout.
McQuarrie’s small silences are like miniature versions of religious retreats, where silence is a positive absence of sound, a place for reflection and peace. We now might think of churches as places of such refuge, especially in cities, but, as Maitland points out, this is a particularly modern phenomenon, a “Victorian hush”, that is also a reaction to our culture of noise. Museums and galleries can also provide this kind of sanctuary space and part of the power of pictures lies in their silence, their need for a whole vocabulary of signs and gestures to signify speech and sounds, and their resulting suggestion that we stand silently in front of them.
McQuarrie’s pictures suggest that she has an intuitive understanding of the possibilities for photographs as silent spaces. Cleared of the suggestion of dialogue or rhetoric, her photographs might allow us to develop Maitland’s distinction between ‘noisy art’ and silent art and apply it to photography. Advertising photography is mostly noisy, so is photojournalism. Art, along with so many other privileges, can allow photography the luxury of quiet. Just as different religions have different silences, so does photography; from the glacial, distanced silence of the cool surveying gaze to the quiet of the small study or pause, which is McQuarrie’s speciality.
Like other artists going back to seventeenth century Holland, McQuarrie uses domestic familiarity to explore more philosophical concerns. Homes may be the notional subject here but these images are not like family photographs: They are not peopled, except for four ‘portraits,’ that are equally anonymous, literally faceless, and also rather elusive. Unlike family snaps, the purpose and meaning of McQuarrie’s photos can elude us. The materials they are printed on provide part of the solution, but perhaps we can find meaning in what is not present: These pictures omit both text and technology, and this is how they achieve their silence and their beauty.