Sarah Ball Connects with Strangers through Her Uncanny Portraits
Sarah Ball’s portraits of strangers cast a hypnotic gaze upon the audience. Ball paints her subjects in voidlike backgrounds with deeply emotive and expressive eyes. While not exactly lifelike nor photorealistic, there is a liveliness to their faces that leaves one feeling equally engaged and unsettled.
Although Ball has been a painter for over 30 years, her career has only recently skyrocketed. In November 2020, she joined the roster of Stephen Friedman Gallery, which made the artist the focus of its booth at Frieze New York the following spring. The booth, a highlight of the fair, quickly sold out. Ball’s work has since become a fixture at the gallery’s international art fair presentations, and the artist opened her first comprehensive solo exhibition with Stephen Friedman in London earlier this year.
Since 2020, her work has also been shown in group exhibitions at other major galleries, including Victoria Miro and Half Gallery, and she’s currently featured in an exhibition at Kunstmuseum Bonn and at Stephen Friedman’s survey of contemporary collage “From Near and Far: Collage and Figuration in the Contemporary Age,” curated by Katy Hessel and Deborah Roberts, on view through July 23rd. Ball has also caught the eye of prominent collectors like Beth Rudin DeWoody. Such success speaks to the distinctive way that Ball humanizes her stoic subjects, conveying emotion that leaves a lasting mark on the viewer.
Ball draws influence from the films of Terrence Malick. She thinks of her portraits as “vignettes that give you a little bit of information and invite you to fill in the rest,” she said in a 2021 interview with the New York Times. She paints her subjects against taupe, beige, or gray backgrounds to draw the attention to the individual’s style and face, not unlike the work of Barkley L. Hendricks. Ball builds up the paint’s thickness and layers in the faces of her subjects, leaving a transfixing gaze that leaps beyond the flatness of the rest of the canvas to evoke something uncanny, akin to Björk’s face transposed onto a robot in the music video for “All is Full of Love” (1999).
The artist pulls her subjects from found or archival imagery, including social media accounts and newspaper clippings. From there, Ball reaches out to the subject for consent and starts a conversation with them, though she opts to not physically meet them, allowing for her impression of them to guide her painterly hand. In her previous series, “Immigrants” (2015–17), Ball used the archives of entry portraits of Ellis Island immigrants to construct her paintings. The final result stripped them of their immigration setting, leaving only a portrait of an often frightened or exasperated soul.
Ball’s painting breathes new life into the genre of portraiture, a rarity when one considers how oversaturated the field is. Her portraits of strangers are not stagnant but become a living object in the gallery that confronts our gaze by staring back.