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Sarah Ball’s Ordinary People

Martin Holman

Perhaps the best show of a contemporary artist in Cornwall this past summer was found in a low-ceilinged back room off the downstairs gallery at Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens. The exhibition is best described as an impromptu event: it arrived without fanfare and may well have disappeared before many people had the chance to see it. In its way, however, it was outstanding for its aesthetic merits. More than that, though, it achieved the rare distinction in today’s art world of being active and engaged: up to the moment culturally and socially. Yet the work never raises its voice above the measured tone of a careful observation but one that reaches right to the heart of the matter.

That perspicacity was not the isolated characteristic of one small display of work alone. It marks the tenor of the artist herself. Sarah Ball is based in Cornwall and is a known quantity nationally, a position that deserves celebration. She has had five solo shows since 2012 in St Ives with the Millennium gallery, now Anima Mundi, and is represented by Stephen Friedman Gallery in London from where her work has had critical exposure in Ireland and in the United States. This year she had a solo presentation at the Frieze New York art fair.

Those exhibitions have almost exclusively featured her paintings, which are also portraits. That is because her theme is people, and the depiction of individuals as subjects is traditionally called ‘portraiture’, perhaps the most searching, critical and revelatory of genres. That definition often applies to the registration of likeness. But the term reaches deeper and is more diverse. For example, it does not exclude the representation of a physical being as a material object like any other, animate or otherwise, as applies to the last 30 years of Lucian Freud’s career. Portraits can reveal much hidden from general sight in the sitter and, which is less expected by the viewer, what lies hidden or unacknowledged in the person who is looking.


Untitled Portraits, c. 2018/19, etching, 30 × 23 cm, edition of 25. © Sarah Ball. Courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, and Paupers Press, London

Ball’s work is a case in point. At Tremenheere, her theme varied in medium only. The images were products of an etching process, the result of her collaboration in 2019 with Paupers Press, the London printmaker with a long history of working with leading artists. Most recently, their partner was James Turrell whose two installations are highlights of Tremenheere’s permanent offer to visitors. Ball’s show brought together a group of polymer gravure prints, small in size – the smallest are 12 cm across and bigger ones are not much larger – and in number: there were about a dozen of them. In polymer gravure ink is drawn up into absorbent paper under the pressure of the press from the tiny grooves below the polymer printing plate’s surface to register the image. Unlike with painting, which produces a unique outcome, an artist’s print is reproduced in multiples with a limit assigned to each edition. This suite forms an edition of 25 copies from each plate.

Ball does not paint or draw from life. Her sitters on this occasion lived but in decades before the artist was born and their lives are often a mystery to her. Each portrait was mediated from historical archives; the most recent of these collections could not have been less than 40 years old and probably dated back a century or more. All the images show forward-facing heads and shoulders derived from photographs. That accounts for the stiff and rather antiquated appearance of the sitters. Yet there is no question that these faces exert a strong hold in present time. The small viewing room intensifies the encounter. Each head stands out from a plain background and sits inside a rectangle surrounded by a larger border of white paper behind a pane of glass set within a plain wooden frame. The infrastructure of display (which was not at the artist’s behest – indeed, it was strangely accidental – but seemed strangely complementary to the subject matter) makes these small heads appear smaller still: a small head within a vacant boundary behind a transparent screen contained by a wooden structure hung upon a white wall and confined to a small room within a much larger building located in acres of countryside set apart from the mass of humanity. It should not have worked but it did. The constrained space resembled an office and even had a table and chair which, although clear of papers, assigned a further clerical twist to the installation. Maybe it was the particular moment that made it gel, coming after months of restrictions to free movement when isolation from others has been the price paid for physical health. Art is a form of distancing and to that Ball highlights, however temporarily, the withdrawal of liberty by an external authority.

Faces reproduced in art have a particular resonance with viewers: we scrutinise a head in a way we would never dare do in everyday life unless for professional reasons, by a medical professional for instance. Portraiture is an act of both scrutiny and idolatry. For those reasons, some religious groups continue to discourage the faithful from being depicted in this way. It fulfils a curiosity to inspect our species intimately for similarities to ourselves in search of visible traces of lived experiences. When the faces are unnamed, as in Ball’s pictures, the desire to fill gaps in knowledge with stories of our own creation is irresistible.

For this work compels scrutiny. Some viewers, at an early stage in the experience, will decide these characters are not for them. They look shifty and under duress, and the concealment of identity is a barrier that puts people off. Ball is not forthcoming. Gallery information fills in some gaps towards an explanation. Most significantly we find out that she retrieves the figures from the administrative dossiers of police or immigration departments. Government bureaucracies continue to collect still images to register the transient flow of humanity through their doors at micro level. They document people caught in a predicament when individuals do not look their best – in custody for a crime, for instance, or newly arrived in a new country, in a new continent, a new reality. Consent was not sought then; not much has changed. Private images still become official property.

But Ball’s images ask questions and withhold answers. As we look into and at each one, we are searching. We might, for instance, notice that while the clothing in the etchings is coloured, the face, by and large, appears monochrome. The surfaces have a faded, washed out feel; colour is muted and details sporadic, with usually more in the toneless face than in the polychromatic clothing. Our own heads quickly fill with speculation about the sitter’s identity and the situation that brought the person before the camera. Denied their names, we interpret the expressions for clues to context. After all, those expressions are often deadpan at best: one or two smile at the lens. Under instruction, their eyes are trained on the apparatus. One woman has her head held back in defiance; a man appears slumped in resignation as if he knows the procedure already. But mostly these faces look forward blankly or with apprehension.

Having found this photographic atlas of humanity stored in institutional files, Ball embarked upon an intriguing task. While undertaking an act of gentle restitution of the sitter’s individuality – colouring their clothing or tidying their complexions – she has also retained a sense of the pernicious bureaucratic aptitude for categorisations which suspends these physiognomies in the limbo of generalisation. They were not known to the authorities by name so much as, in the case of migrants, by country of origin. And for the faces in legal custody, by the misdemeanour that would bring them before the judge in police court.

Nineteenth-century government in the ‘advanced nations’ surpassed even the Spanish Empire of the Golden Age with the extent and complexity of its record keeping. Services were being extended to more and more citizens, and peoples were on the move, from oppression, starvation and joblessness in search of a new chance at peace and security across distant borders, especially in the Americas. Photography became an ideal tool for keeping track of people who came into the ambit of the state. By the turn of the last century the technology was relatively quick and easy to use. Ball’s sources appear to date from that time up to the 1950s. The photographers behind the source material that Ball has used were mostly untrained, gaining experience by being on the job of turning their equipment on those who needed documenting, the kind of people who left precious little other public trace of having existed, except perhaps a line every decade in a population census.


Augustus Sherman, Gypsy woman at Ellis Island, photograph, c. 1910, © US National Park Service, Statue of Liberty National Monument

The resources available to Ball will have been dauntingly vast, so she had to be selective. The archive at New York’s Ellis Island alone relates to the immigration of over 12 million migrants to the United States during the 50 years from 1892. Not surprisingly it supplied Ball with an entire show of paintings, called ‘Immigrants’ at Millennium, St Ives, in 2015. Oil paint on panels prepared with a smooth surface of gesso infused these heads, full face or in a three-quarter turn, with a luminescence that the glass or film negatives could not capture. In these paintings, the faces acquired colour as if Ball breathed not only life into them but also restored their humanity as people who once lived and dressed and walked, who were picked out and sat waiting for a flash bulb to explode, and then slipped back into the flow of newcomers. In that show, her paintings were small and barely larger than the original photograph, but bigger than modern passport prints. Her paintings have grown in since. Negatives deteriorate and prints fade, but oil paint lasts. In a sense that is strangely poignant. Ball’s treatment gave these unknowns new life and new stories.

Immigrant Series – Moroccan, 2016, oil on gesso panel, 17.8 x 12.7 cm. © Sarah Ball. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

Ball has participated in numerous group shows in the UK and US; next year will see a one-person exhibition at Stephen Friedman. As well as ‘Immigrants’, five solo shows in St Ives and the US (four solo shows there since 2014) have often been titled by the type of archive she has used. ‘Accused’ (2012-14) was followed by a second showing, with ‘Immigrants’, in galleries in Dallas, Texas, where the contemporary relevance of the work relating to penal policy and migration must have been inescapable to her audience. In the Trump era, a wall was begun along the state’s border with Mexico for the singular purpose of halting the free flow into the US. Another show was titled ‘Kindred’ (2017) for which, as well as Ellis Island migrants, there were portraits derived from the recently discovered collection of Romanian army photographer, Costică Acsinte. He had photographed the Eastern European country from 1925 until his death in 1984, through several upheavals – coups, war and its aftermath of the shape of a Communist dictatorship which brought about rapid industrialisation at the cost of the country’s rural agricultural traditions and architecture. The show featured faces from across a century that had witnessed immense shifts in culture and expectation, whether in capitalist America or under the regime changes of Europe.

Her portraits at Tremenheere reflect on changes in fortune. They make an enthralling comparison with the fashionable illustrated carte de visite of the Victorian era that catered for the other extreme of society. Posed in studios by professionals, these images supplied the trappings of status - solid furniture, suitable background, baroque curtain and perhaps a plinth to lean against in the manner of a classical column – that came courtesy of the photographer and a props cupboard stocked with generic tokens of genteel accomplishment. These cards were politely left in their tens of thousands, not only to prospective hosts but, as it turns out, to posterity. The sitters sought a flattering representation, one that could stand in for their own attributes of status on those occasions when such tokens were left in others’ hands.


Police mug shot of Mick Jagger following the singer’s arrest in February 1967


Every so often an editor publishes a selection of these aspirational aides-mémoires. Mug shots, on the other hand, are less well treated although they have as much, if not, more intrinsic value for future generations. They record a different interface with society, one that was culturally, politically and economically regarded as problematic. Occasionally, the two poles of society have converged: Mick Jagger when busted for amphetamine possession in 1967; a youthful, tousle-haired Frank Sinatra on a seduction charge in 1938; or Hugh Grant after being arrested for ‘lewd conduct’ in Los Angeles in 1995. Anonymity was never a possibility for these celebrities in custody; they remain nameable.

As flash bulbs were popping in police precinct houses and immigrant reception centres in front of Ball’s people a century or more ago, the social scientists of the day were enquiring into the criminal mind. They were asking if wrongdoing was the product of nature or nurture. The camera became their research tool. Although the term ‘mug shot’ is a relatively modern invention, coined around 1950, the format evolved in Belgium in the 1840s and was soon adopted in the UK and France before becoming universal. Ball is well aware of this history, which probably accounts for one series bring titled ‘Bertillon’, shown in the eponymous show at Anima Mundi in 2017. Alphonse Bertillon was a Paris police officer with a tidy mind, a family history in statistics and an interest in anthropometry, the technique of human measurement with the aim of studying physical variation. In the 1880s Bertillon applied anthropometry to the question of whether criminals can be identified by their physical attributes – specifically by head length, head breadth, length of the middle finger, of the left foot, of the hand’s span. The camera could provide the evidential link between outward appearance and inward character. Asylums for patients who were considered then ‘insane’ might have used these documents for their own research into hereditary factors in mental illness.

AC 19, 2018, oil on linen, 99 x 99 cm. © Sarah Ball. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

The essence of Bertillon’s theory was that people who look bad are bad; either they ‘measure up’ as innocent or they don’t, depending on who is asking. His assumptions hardly bear examination. But they do reflect the belief that was widespread until quite recently that the ‘camera doesn’t lie’. When in league with the caliper or ruler, the evidence was irrefutable. The lens was popularly presumed to be the objective register of reality. That individuals seldom look their best in police mug shots (or passport photographs, for that matter) was inadmissible. The flaw in the process was long overlooked: it was designed for adult men with short hair. Women and children were less easily categorised by this method, although the Minneapolis police department, currently notorious in the tragic case of George Floyd, used it for decades in their surveillance of female sex workers. The theory thrived on broad generalisations about identifiable sections of the community that caused anxiety in established circles eager to protect its property, its ethnic superiority and its moral assumptions. An instance of its perceived value occurred when Bertillon was called as a witness for the prosecution in the Dreyfus trial.

Anthropometry is no longer the backbone of the criminal justice system; forensics have supplanted it, another Bertillon project. But Ball is not pursuing research into historical representation or stereotyping. Instead the implications of her work are strikingly contemporary. Without doubt, her paintings and these prints – one led on to the other – touch the long history of portraiture, its tropes and frailties, and it stands that history on its head. By choosing the involuntary portrayal of individuals, the likeness taken under duress, she lives in the spirit of predecessors such as Théodore Géricault. His sensitive portraits of the insane painted for the physician, Étienne-Jean Georget, in 1823 were not the first such pictorial enquiries into appearance, but they are among the most searing and memorable.

Géricault’s paintings assisted Georget’s studies which had already produced his book ‘On Madness’, published in 1820. Physiognomy supported his theory that the state of mind was detected in facial characteristics. ‘In general,’ he wrote, ‘the idiot’s face is stupid, without meaning; the face of the manic patient is as agitated as his spirit, often distorted and cramped; the moron’s facial characteristics are dejected and without expression’ and so on, further defining the features expected in the monomaniac, the religious fanatic, the anxious patient and more. In spite of Georget’s harsh language, his work applied empirical science to alleviate conditions that society excluded from serious consideration, in an attempt to trace their social causes. Géricault’s objective approach delves into the subject’s external characteristics to detect conspicuous signs of illness in the eyes, mouth, skin and self-presentation. Maybe it was Georget’s demand for objectivity that resulted in all the faces being unnamed and known for all time by their infirmities.

Théodore Géricault, Portrait of a Kleptomaniac, 1822, oil on canvas, 61 x 50 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent

Ball, of course, also divulges little about her subjects: she holds her cards close to her chest. They are report cards, naturally. Police records, for instance, would have listed the individual’s offence, so that one subject is a pickpocket, another a forger, a third a vagrant. Immigration officials wanted to know from which country the new arrival had sailed, so they were listed by nationality and quite likely by race, as Russian, Italian and Jew. They wore the clothes in which they stepped onto American soil, which might have been their best suit, cut in the style of the region they had left behind them. Their occupation was also noted, although no attribute of craft or skill is ever visible in the image, as it could be helpful to a future employer. Anyway, officers wanted to know because they were in a position to ask, to intrude.

Ball’s paintings (and these etchings) and Géricault’s, too, provide the answer to those who wonder why this territory is not left to photography. Surely, the mechanical registers likeness as well (and more quickly and cheaply) than the manual process of artists. Edward Weston and Dorothea Lange, after all, captured the predicament of Depression-era families more memorably than their painter- contemporaries. Painting, however, has an approach that is both modern and timeless; it contains layers of insight that photography cannot equal. A portrait by Lucian Freud, for example, set next to one by, say, the leading photographer of the 1960s, Brian Duffy, will highlight the degree to which painting transposes ordinary subjects into memorable images.

Ball has borrowed her sitters’ features; if she could seek their consent, no doubt she would. But time prevented her and, anyway, forwarding addresses (if known) had probably been bulldozed years ago. She translated photographed faces from one medium to another, painting, albeit one with its own cargo of aesthetic and cultural associations. One of several reasons Ball’s portraits score highly with our imaginations is that the viewer feels impelled to speculate, to dress them in new stories. And they provoke serious thoughts about how human perspectives have changed so little. In stylistic terms, her method employs appropriation of existing material which she processes in much the way as Photoshop, by colourising and enhancing. Her technique makes the viewer think of the controversy of retouching bodily reality towards an ideal unhampered by wrinkles and bulges. Consequently, Ball’s work can strike us as a remarkable meditation on present times.

That privilege of self-modification was denied the subjects of the polymer etchings on show at Tremenheere. These images do not seek idealism. Rather, they are invested with realism that penetrates the viewer’s own assumptions. Crime and migration are eternal realities, as old as mankind. As are the responses of settled populations. Is racial profiling – the tendency institutionalised in many societies of suspecting, targeting or discriminating against a person on the basis of their ethnicity or religion – so different from Bertillon’s application of anthropometry as a measure (puns are inescapable) for crime prevention?

The perception of ‘difference’ continues to divide communities along lines of race, religion and class. Vast numbers of people risk their lives today to escape poverty and violence as they did after the pogroms of Russia at the end of the nineteenth century when poet Emma Lazarus wrote the lines that appear on the lower pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore…’ Across the globe, the complicity of host societies in the pernicious evils of divided communities is heard in the phrase, ‘You know, the problem is not with us.’ Meanwhile, governments build walls to resist unauthorised incomers, either physical obstacles or the poisoned atmosphere of the officially sanctioned ‘hostile environment’ projected at those presumed to have no right to be ‘here’. Governments threaten to turn back at sea the rafts carrying refugees to Europe or Asia, and staff immigration centres place emphasis on ‘indefinite detention’ and deportation to ‘offshore hubs’ rather than reception and integration.

Ball’s opinions are not on show. She does not invite a classification of her own, as ‘political artist’. She has selected her material and, once aesthetically mediated, places her work before the viewer. But neither can the artist ever be a neutral observer. A painter cannot be a passive camera lens; like the photographer, she selects and she can edit. But she need not proclaim. This is the strength of Ball’s work: she raises the possibility of an ethical position that cannot be evaded. As her audience stands in front of her canvases or looks into the framed prints of her show at Tremenheere, the message that comes in their direction is ‘Where do you stand?’ The work resonates with quiet confidence as searching questions animate the gallery space.


Romanian Series (two women, holding hands), 2017, graphite on paper, 85 x 66 cm. © Sarah Ball. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

At least, that is one interpretation. These images are open to scrutiny, the starting point of which has to be empathy for the humanity of the sitters. The risk exists that Ball’s work will be recruited to support positions that she herself does not endorse. She came through the art school system in the 1980s, studying at Newport College of Art and Design, which is a combination of time and place that brings to mind the distinctive critical attitude towards the social and political dimensions of imagery promoted by tutors at Newport. It was imbedded in photojournalism and, later on, in the structural subtleties associated with conceptual art. In this progressive and interrogative environment many students flourished and others, inevitably, floundered. In that environment, however, could a spade remain only a spade; every action had an equal and opposite subtext.

In the circumstances, it might be surprising that Ball held on to the traditional medium of painting. She first practised illustration after graduation, a direction of career that has a perceptible mark in her work today. (Like her etchings, her pencil drawings in the past have been very conscious of the white space of the sheet, positioning small, carefully delineated figure portraits in an ocean of vacant material.) But Newport had a reputation for teaching traditional media as creatively as newer, time-based technologies and of encouraging independence, both of which emerged in Ball’s painting once she returned to the idiom early this century, completing a master’s degree in Fine Art in 2005 at Bath Spa University. Perhaps this combination of formative experiences shows itself in the compassion and consciousness that diffuse across her portrayals a vitalising effect on the media of painting and print themselves. ‘Immigrants, the title of this series,’ Ball wrote about her show in 2015, ‘is a word that has always been loaded with a meaning and weight beyond the dry dictionary definition. The word is weapon, a political pawn, a tabloid headline, to the point that one might forget that we are dealing with human beings.’


Elliot, 2020, oil on linen, 160 × 160 cm. © Sarah Ball. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

Her source material has never been exclusively historical. In paintings from 2020, her focus returns to the present, a moment in which preoccupation with appearance is acute because the means for self-portrayal are in everyone’s hands. Now the faces are named and the individuals are probably living. There is Edie, Lilith, Anthony, Elliot and more, and they strike us as posed, intentional and knowing, in the way that mobile phone camera selfies are. Their heads address the viewer and proclaim their uniqueness by hair styles and dress sense (that we suspect are also modelled on fashion and ‘tribal’ loyalties); facial expressions still convey attitude. Indeed, the ‘selfie’ is the latest challenge by photography to the once unsurpassable hegemony of the painted portrait, an assault that has been underway for 180 years.

Indeed, with her choice of formats that almost imitate photograph, this artist may be returning the challenge with brio. For, with Ball, it seems that not only is what she paints significant, so is how she paints it – the muted tones, then blocks of colour that stand out like abstract planes; the blank backgrounds; polished skin tones; and the push and pull between flat areas and others plumply modelled. The perceptible trend in these latest works is towards the sugar-coated fashion of modern Japanese Kawaii or ‘cute’ culture and K-Pop promos. That development also reflects trends that exist on a higher aesthetic plane among figure painters such as John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, Kehinde Wiley, to reinvent the tired category of genre painting before the depiction of the human figure is consumed by magazine photoshoots and pornography. Yet, at the same time, Ball’s treatment of faces and the upper body has a lineage stretching back to the early Renaissance in Europe, when formats and media were being tried out and, to an extent, perfected. An idea of moral and material perfection was achieved in Jan van Eyck, Giovanni Bellini and Titian, but acquired an additional ambiguity in the quirky attentiveness to detail of the Cranachs, Dürer and Hans Baldung.

These latest portrayals (shown at Frieze New York this year) have also acquired scale over their predecessors. So, as well as the face, dimensions invite interrogation, since the larger they get the more the artist’s technique is exposed to examination and greater the area becomes for abstract subtleties in texture and form, like in hair and clothing. The process of upsizing from almost pocket-sized panels to wall-filling canvas started in 2018-19 and was the surprise feature of her last solo show at Anima Mundi in 2019, called ‘Themself’. Perhaps, however, the source is not private but, once again, institutional in the form of workplace identity badge, strung around the neck by a swinging lanyard. 

The truth, Ball might be suggesting, is that anonymity might now be hoped for when our likenesses are disseminated across numerous channels. Size might imitate assumed self-esteem, the flaunting of a desired rendition on multiple social media platforms.

Yet the huge enlargement could underline the view that, in an era where more and more people struggle to define the identities that suit them, sensitivities to appearance among adolescents and adults alike are heightened almost to psychological breaking point by the swift exchange of likenesses. When identity itself is now more fluid in its categorisation than ever before in human history, there is no hiding place from the critical eye of the unseen viewer. Ball’s work is a reminder that visual rendition is a fact of modern life. Dissolution is not an option.

© Martin Holman 2021. The author is a writer based in Penzance and a regular contributor to Art Monthly and the Burlington Magazine.