‘Themself’, new portrait paintings by Sarah Ball, at Anima Mundi, St Ives, 26 July – 6 Sept 2019
Entering the gallery and confronted immediately by the arresting portrait of ‘Izzy’, I was half-prepared for a dazzling exhibition of beautifully-painted portraits, accompanied by intriguing back stories. Sarah Ball’s practice relies on gathering found images from the media and from historical archives, and in this new series of works she has roamed through social media, sourcing her muses to explore alternative identities and generate fictional narratives.
Her small portraits are exquisite icons; the detailed attention to hair and clothing allows her to play with ideas around gender and sexuality, at the same time encouraging a reading of the ‘sitter’ as vulnerable. A reading that seems to be confirmed by the large portraits. Take ‘Marie’, for example, a luminous blue-eyed face looking out from a Rembrandtian field of brown – or ‘Marie’, resilient, almost confrontational – brown-eyed in two portraits, blue-eyed in another. Perhaps not so vulnerable then: the empathy that I had prepared to feel on first entering the gallery was beginning to fade. And I was beginning to be bothered by the mask-like quality of the faces: the absence of lines, pores, spots, wrinkles, pointed to an abstraction not only aesthetic but pragmatic.
Perhaps the most instantly-accessible portrait is that of Elliot (top floor) with his/her eyes concealed by large blue-lensed sunglasses, and a blue jacket painted with a flatness reminiscent of Alex Katz’s portraits of white upper-middleclass Americans. Opposite are three small portraits of Elliot in headscarf and oversize spectacles. Between them, the large portrait of ‘Tex’ stares uncompromisingly, blankly, from a field of warm browns, reds and golds.
Far from evincing a feeling of empathy with the imagined lives of these imagined sitters, these images are haunted by the digital media from which they originated. They are full of contradictions and ambiguities, but this is their attraction: underlying this are the cold algorithms of social media that generate images without content, images with fictional narratives, self-promotional images, images of a generation of digital natives seemingly entirely self-absorbed and uncritical of the media that circulate and proliferate their likenesses endlessly.
‘Themself’ is a virtuoso performance of painting that opens up not only questions of image, identity, and gender, but also points to a post-human aesthetic, reflecting us back to ourselves through a miasma of social media practices.
Patricia Wilson Smith
volume 34 no 1 September – October 2019 p 26