Sarah Ball - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, March 2, 2023 | Phillips

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  • “I’m interested in all aspects of the human condition, including sexuality and gender, which are intrinsic to our identity."
    —Sarah Ball

    Head drawn back and chin slightly upturned, Elliot looks down at us through red-rimmed glasses, the reflected light just glancing the lens surface. The sitter seems confident, self-assured, content to be in their own skin. Gossamer-light, the hair falls just short of the shoulders, stray threads of luminous blond catching the light. The cheeks, touched with the slightest pink blush are otherwise porcelain-smooth, luminous against the heavy black contour of the ribbon tied loosely under the sitter’s chin. Tilted up at an angle, the broad brim of a golden yellow sunhat frames Elliot’s pale face like the radiant halo of a medieval icon, and yet there is something in the portrait’s crisp, psychological clarity that renders it at once timeless and utterly contemporary.


    Executed in 2020, the meticulously rendered Elliot belongs to the Yorkshire-born artist Sarah Ball’s ongoing series of portraits that play with notions of identity, sexuality, and gender. Influenced in part by the more fluid mode of gender expression expressed by musicians from her youth including David Bowie and Poly Styrene, Ball’s precise portraits ‘predominately read as androgynous or gender non-conforming’, generating an ambiguity that confounds their apparent simplicity and complicates more passive interactions with her work.i As the artist explains, ‘the manifestation of identity and the aesthetic choices we make’ have always been a subject of fascination for her, and her portraits engage thoughtfully with the space between who we feel ourselves to be, and the way that self is made legible in the world.ii


    Sarah Ball, 2020. Image: Courtesy Sarah Ball and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

    Life in Squares


    As is typical of Ball’s mesmerising portraits, the present work is titled after its sitter, Elliot, a recurring subject in Ball’s work and one of the ‘characters cast by the artist on the streets of Britain or found within social media’s ubiquitous archive of faces.’iii  Indeed, closely cropped and set against a softly flattened, empty space, the square format employed by Ball here suggests the vernacular of studio photography, head and shoulder shots taken in photobooths, and even the rigid framing of the Instagram grid. While there is clearly something in Ball’s thinking related to the ways in which the self is visualised, communicated, and circulated in our contemporary digital culture, these more reactive queries are embedded in deeper, more probing questions about the nature of portraiture itself: what – and how – does portraiture ‘mean’?


    At once a ‘memorial record and penetrating device’, portraiture in its most reductive definitions seeks to capture the physical likeness of a person and, in doing so, making something of the sitter’s inner essence more present.iv Of course, this is nothing new, portraiture long having been employed as a tool of power where certain textiles, settings, and symbolically loaded objects were utilised to develop a specific narrative about the subject’s character and background. In the context of 16th century courtly portraiture, opulent, jewelled embellishment, rich velvet and silks, and detailed embroidery all communicated the wealth, power, and influence of their subject, while certain other details adopted more complex symbolism in their own historical contexts.


    Nicholas Hillard, Queen Elizabeth I (The Ermine Portrait), 1585, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire
    Nicholas Hillard, Queen Elizabeth I (The Ermine Portrait), 1585, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire. Image: Bridgeman Images

    In the Eye of the Beholder
    ‘I’m looking for empathy, and I’m looking at the gaze.’
    —Sarah Ball

    A student in Britain in the 1980s, Ball found herself confronted by certain pressures to reject portraiture in favour of the more conceptual approaches to artmaking that were then in the ascendency. Turning instead to illustration and graphic design she gradually honed the economic approach to form employed to such powerful effect in the arrangement of crisp, flattened, monochromatic shapes in the present work. Rather than cluttering her composition with symbolically loaded details, Ball’s paintings are radically reduced in order to better focus our attention on the ‘defining characteristics of [her subject’s] visual identities: a tattoo, a beauty spot, electric blue eyeshadow, a loose ringlet.’v In this way her strikingly clear portraits capture both a physical likeness and something more essential. As the artist explains, while she might initially be drawn to small, aesthetic details in her subject’s presentation of themselves, her work focuses our attention beyond these visual markers, eliciting an empathetic response in their viewers in a manner that at once recalls the denuded settings favoured by Dutch and Flemish Old Masters and the cool psychological focus of Lucian Freud’s meticulous portraits. 


    Left: Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family, c. 1470, The National Gallery, London. Image: © The National Gallery, London/Scala, Florence
    Right: Lucian Freud, Girl with a Kitten, 1947, Tate Collection, London. Image and Artwork: © The Lucian Freud Archive. All Rights Reserved 2023 / Bridgeman Images

    Unlike Freud however, Ball works primarily from found imagery - photographic portraits borrowed from historical archives documenting immigration and criminality, newspapers, and long scrolls on social media. Painting at a step removed from her sitters in this way, Ball endows her portraits with an air of detached anonymity which in turn encourages viewers to search a little deeper in their faces for these hidden narratives. In earlier bodies of work, this led to an interest in the historical practice of physiognomy – the so-called science of reading in the shape and features of a person’s face certain invisible and incontrovertible truths about their character and morality. Reclaiming a collection of these historical records and working on a small scale, Ball raised pertinent questions about how we look and what we see when we do, or, what has been described in relation to Gerhard Richter’s photorealist painting as ‘the capacity to see better’. Like Richter’s famous 1988 portrait of his daughter Betty which was painted from a 1977 photograph, Elliot demands to be seen. Not just gazed upon.


    Gerhard Richter, Betty, 1977, 1988, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image and Artwork: © Gerhard Richter 2023 (0039)

    Collector’s Digest


    • Born in Yorkshire in 1965, Sarah Ball graduated from New Art College in the 1980s and completed an MFA at Bath Spa University in 2005. Her work has been exhibited at the Royal Academy, the Victoria & Albert Museum and Somerset House in London, and is included in renowned institutional collections, such as the British Museum, the Kunstmuseum Bonn and the Rachofsky House in Dallas. The artist currently lives and works in West Cornwall.

    • Following the announcement of her representation by Stephen Friedman Gallery, Ball’s first solo show with the gallery opened in January 2022 in London. 

    • A sister work featuring the same sitter was more recently on display at the Long Museum in Shanghai as part of their group exhibition Being in the World.


    i Philomena Epps, Pure Subject’, in Sarah Ball, (exh. cat.), London, 2022, p.7. 

    ii Sarah Ball, quoted in Chloë Asby, ‘Self Examination: Face to Face with Painter Sarah Ball’, Elephant Magazine, 27 January 2022, online
    iii Flavia Frigeri, ‘Portraits as Encounter’, Sarah Ball, (exh. cat.), London, 2022, p.31.  
    iv Flavia Frigeri, ‘Portraits as Encounter’, Sarah Ball, (exh. cat.), London, 2022, p.31. 
    v Chloë Asby, ‘Self Examination: Face to Face with Painter Sarah Ball’, Elephant Magazine, 27 January 2022, online.

    • Provenance

      Stephen Friedman Gallery, London
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      London, Stephen Friedman Gallery, In Real Life, 23 November 2020 – 4 January 2021

    • Literature

      Ginanne Brownell, ‘Sarah Ball’s Simple Portraits Hint at Complex Stories’, The New York Times, 4 May 2021 (illustrated in the artist’s studio, online)
      Ayanna Dozier, ‘Sarah Ball Connects with Strangers through Her Uncanny Portraits’, Artsy, 17 June 2022 (illustrated, online)
      Jonathan Horrocks, Tamsin Huxford and Gerrie van Noord, eds., Sarah Ball, London, 2022, p. 19 (illustrated)



signed and dated ‘Sarah Ball 2020’ on the reverse
oil on linen
160 x 160 cm (62 7/8 x 62 7/8 in.)
Painted in 2020.

Full Cataloguing

£60,000 - 80,000 ‡♠

Sold for £120,650

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 2 March 2023