Critique: Holly Dang

Untitled, 2010

 I have been following the work of the artist, Stephen Small-Warner, for some time. He uses photography and film in an attempt to bring awareness and clarity to certain aspects of our lives that we would normally disregard; the mundane becomes a transformative experience instead of passive banality. I was drawn to a black and white photo, which has no name or information available to define it. A lot of modern artwork that I have seen have titles and explanations, however, it seems Small-Warner has made the executive choice for us to freely impose our ideas as a means to expand this work from its containment of being in a box so that we are also removed from the mental box that we carry within ourselves.

     The highly contrasting black and white photo shows a person standing, with their back towards us, in the middle of the frame with their neck bent so far downwards that their head and neck have disappeared. Along with this unusual stance, is a gesture of the right arm hanging outwards diagonally from the body. Rationally, my mind understands this is how the body happened to be positioned, but as I stare for a longer period, the person takes on a headless doll quality. This decapitation suggests a child-like feeling of loss over a broken toy; a sorrow that comes from bewilderment. The arm reaching out is a resigned plea. What could they be asking for? Why are they not more forceful with their begging? This leads to an overall aura of melancholy that cannot be shaken. 

     Small-Warner’s strong use of light and shadow provides another additional element of mournfulness. The soft light outlining the body gives a dimension of weight to tie down the ethereal figure rising from the darkness. Even though the person has a mysterious shadowy quality, they are unable to escape from this physical plane and are confined to it. They are restricted to this sadness that will not release them to freedom. The sharply defined objects e.g. the cluttered desk, low armchair, and picture frames on the windowsill around the lightly limned person serves as a concrete barrier to further burden them. However desperate the subject might have once been for liberation, that notion is long gone from facing the constant weariness of life. 

     When viewing this photograph, and this is true for many of Small-Warner’s artworks, one can easily brush by without giving it the mindfulness that it deserves. This black and white piece prods our emotional boundaries to understand that it is not only a simple image of a person in a room. We are made to constantly wonder why this despondency is so pervasive throughout the picture. Why must this person surrender to the sadness that binds them in such a deep way? In the end, we may not come to a conclusive answer, yet there is no denying that the story is much bigger than what the eye can see.