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What does a portrait represent? Can a portrait ever claim to capture the identity of the sitter beyond the superficial? Albert Einstein once stated; “A human being is a part of the whole, called by us Universe... We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us...” So how can the artist hope to represent that which remains out of reach? A portrait therefore can only represent an attempt to breach ones own prison. It can inspire a glimpse out (of ourselves) and propel us towards a glimpse in (to another). This attempt to connect paints a picture in part of disconnection; the bridge to cross is one of empathy. Sarah Ball’s paintings taken from mug shot photographs enforce this notion in an intriguing way.

Photography creates an immediate perception of character and so the identity of the object is a product of that instant perception. With mug shot’s there are relatively few ‘tells’ due to an insisted inherent expressive blankness on the face of the accused. They are not memorabilia, not sentimental, not imbued or weighted by emotion, they are the opposite of what photographs often represent – What do we notice in the absence of such freighted theatricality – isolation, defiance, vulnerability, truth? The only clue, the only other thing that we have to make our judgment on this person is that they are perhaps a criminal – in the absence of all else it is the sum of who they are – is this enough to complete our picture? This is frequently the case for Ball also, who often knows little else of the subject or their fate, so unlike the painter who can sit with the subject and attempt through discourse or familiarity to reveal a truth, all Ball has is the silent engagement with her own processes of sympathetic identification. She claims that the objective is not simply in searching for a figurative likeness, but the essence to make the painting right. 

This exhibition is a continuation of a body of work, the first part of which was exhibited at Millennium last year. It focuses more specifically on groups of people; from civil rights movement activists, fire raisers (members of the KKK) and poisoners alongside people whose crimes were suspicious, dangerous or simply unknown. Some of the crimes are despicable whilst others may have been heroic. The collective creates a very human portrait, of the shifting nature of right and wrong. Enforcing the changing subjectivity of judgment - these portraits challenge us to move beyond our own positive or negative judgments, if that is possible?

Controversial film maker David Cronenberg stated; “As an artist you look into yourself to understand the human potential to be all kinds of things that are not necessarily pleasant but are real - a criminal, a murderer, a sadist, a rapist; to be all of these things that many people are. You can’t allow yourself to say, ‘I’m a different species from those people.’ Because you aren’t. The criminal as monster is kind of common. That’s very convenient because you can then say, ‘Of course I’m not a monster, therefore I’m not a criminal therefore I have no potential in tern of criminality.’ And that lets you off the hook. That gives you a nice wall between yourself and them.” Sarah Ball’s greatest achievement with these intimate works is to effectively break down walls and create bridges – for me the function of art itself.

Joseph Clarke . 2013


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Sarah Ball’s is a British artist born in Yorkshire, England in 1965. She currently lives and works in west Cornwall.

Her practice relies on the gathering of found source material, from newspaper cuttings, archival photographs and historical documentation, including criminal ‘mug shot’ archives. She selects subjects with, and without, known narratives. From these images, Ball paints intricate portraits that re-establish the imagined life of the often anonymous, unknowing sitter. Physiognomy is a primary concern. This supposedly outdated practice, whereby character or a persons morality are decided by the geometries of a face, was a common 19th century method, which dictated that an individual’s appearance was connected to their ethics and character. Sarah Ball’s paintings reflect her intrigue with these concepts and the history of the people she encounters. The painted portraits are placed on a neutral background with space around them, allowing for a metaphorical clean slate so that the viewer can investigate each subject close up in intimate detail with out prejudice. The viewer is compelled to empathise with the subject and draw their own conclusions and perhaps contemplate how we still continue to judge others based on aesthetics and assumption. 

Sarah Ball studied at Newport Art College in the early 80s, followed by a MFA at Bath Spa University from 2003 - 2005. She has exhibited widely and Internationally. Her work has been shown at the Threadneedle Prize, The Royal Academy, Somerset House and The V&A Museum. In 2016 Ball had a solo show at The House of St Barnabas, Soho Square and her work was shown alongside John Currin, Paul Macarthy, Juan Fontanive and Celia Paul in Dallas, USA as a part of Art for Aids TWO x TWO charity auction. She has held four solo exhibitions at Anima-Mundi. Works are included in collections worldwide. Sarah Ball is represented by Anima-Mundi