An essay on Polly Cruse's Still Lives collection, by Krzystof Fijalkowski
Populated by the kinds of domestic objects we've all seen in our own houses or those of others, Polly Cruse's recent photographs are brought together under the deceptively straightforward heading Still Lives. But 'lives' can be pronounced in two different ways, and it isn't long before these often light-hearted or decorative things, familiar to the point of invisibility in their normal environments, start to assume a presence announcing an enigma. By turns playful and poignant, close at hand yet whispering of other corners of the world, capturing - as our own mantelpieces do - a convivial gathering of exhibits that belies a complicated economy of exchange or storytelling and a meticulously rehearsed staging, these are images that throb a little as you look, that won't quite settle.
Predominantly a sculptor who uses found materials in large-scale juxtapositions, Cruse has also been drawn to photography in order not only to document these artworks, but to explore them in different lights. Here the works are exclusively photographic, again featuring found objects which this time remain resolutely themselves, clustered in small groups to tell fleeting stories, and featuring selections of real or artificial flowers. Captured against an impenetrable black background, photographed in a minute detail that gives colours and surfaces a slightly 'more than real' air, the works tip their hat to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Dutch still life painting, of which flower paintings were a particularly remarkable sub-category (one of the few genres of pre-Modernist painting, one might add, where women artists such as Maria van Oosterwijck or Rachel Ruysch were celebrated in their own time). Painstakingly constructed and executed, glowing with an inner light balancing logic and magic in equal measure, such paintings assembled domestic articles, natural specimens, foodstuffs and materials. Profusion, classification, possession; but also, as you unpick the narratives, signals of class and status, trade and global relations.
Cruse's objects have a pathos and resilience all their own that transpose the still life genre to today - our age of the unprecedented mass-marketing of eventually irrelevant commodities - but at the same time add to it elements of play, sly humour, even fairy-tale that evoke an empathy with small things and single them out as unique and alive. They come from her own shelves (the studio in which these photographs were made are crowded with their comrades), or have been borrowed from friends' houses, already mapping between a domestic environment and networks of places or relationships further afield. Often featuring toys or trinkets resonant with memories of birthdays or holidays, Still Lives' trade is partly that of the gift - identified by anthropologist Marcel Mauss as a sophisticated ambassador of power and reciprocity - or global economic networks (every souvenir these days, it seems, comes from an Asian territory most of us have never visited).
Deeper still, these collections of things - closest to the cabinet of curiosities in their diversity: rarely the same twice, cheerfully muddling categories of artefacts and materials - resonate with that other theme from Northern European painting, the vanitas works in which intimations of absence, time and mortality are figured through symbolic objects, in particular natural materials. Cruse's flowers often look pretend even when they are real, but the sense that these little mystery plays might roll away in the next moment, their actors tiptoeing into the wings of an inky and absolute blackness, gives the sitting room comedy a sudden sense of fleeting encounter (Marcel Duchamp thought of his objects as 'a kind of rendezvous' between artist and object). It is a transience all the more poignant for being surprised in the camera's lens, and behind which runs a trace of mourning. Looming out of the dark these hitherto ignorable things, caught at just the moment when a tale is at its denouement, suddenly lurch out of scale, their relative proportions off-kilter - an inversion of values noted both by Norman Bryson as peculiar to still life painting, and by Susan Sontag as the preserve of all photography, where 'the camera makes exotic things near, intimate; and familiar things small, abstract, strange, much further away.' Antiques courting novelties, nature's indifferent perfection alongside comic baubles, toys playing with tools: Cruse's photographs collapse difference and distance as they record the languages of the things that share our air.