The old saw that a picture is worth a thousand words may still be true, but it always takes at least a few words to unlock the meaning, to let the picture tell its story. And a different word will make for a different story, a divergent meaning. Artists have been worrying for a long time about the peculiar relationship between pictures and their captions, between showing and saying, and because the relationship is always in flux, the worrying isn’t likely to stop.
The American artist Lorna Simpson has been exploring this quandary since the beginning of her career, and an early piece like Twenty Questions (A Sampler), from 1986, is typical. Four seemingly identical black-and-white photographs—tondos rather than rectangles—show the back of the head of a young black woman who is wearing a simple white sleeveless outfit against a black background. It is often assumed that the face turned away from the viewer is Simpson’s. It is not. But this may be one of those instances where misidentification—an explicit concern of her work—carries its own kind of truth. If artists like Cindy Sherman can use themselves as models in order to represent other people, who can say for sure that using other people as models is not a way of representing oneself? At the Jeu de Paume in Paris, France’s national gallery of photography and media art, where Simpson’s work is on view through September 1, the title of Twenty Questions (A Sampler) is displayed on a white-on-black plaque—the kind you can have made in a hardware store to mount on a door, for instance—on the wall above the photographs. Lined up underneath the four images are five more plaques: is she pretty as a picture / or clear as crystal / or pure as a lily / or black as coal / or sharp as a razor. The words are big enough to be viewed at a distance.
Twenty Questions (A Sampler) isn’t simply a set of black-and-white photographs. It is, so to speak, emphatically black and white, using photography not only to evoke issues of race but also to explore the relationship between the black and white of the image and that of the text. The words are what’s “seen” and the image what’s “read”; as Simpson once said of the figure in another of her works from the same year, Waterbearer: ”I wanted people to see that woman as she sees herself, which is to say, as herself, declarative.” In other words, in the form of a statement, a sentence.
The same image can be interpreted through any number of similes, but the fact that there are five captions for four photographs graphically underscores the lack of a snug fit between text and image. The numerical mismatch between images and captions is a recurring device with Simpson. In a piece from 1988, Five Day Forecast, there are five black-and-white images, of presumably the same black woman wearing presumably the same white shift, standing, arms crossed, against a white background. This time she is shown from the front, but only from the neck to the hips. Above each of the five photographs (more or less where the face would be, as if, instead of making identity declarative, the artist is showing how the declarative can take the place of personal identity), a plaque names one of the five days of the workweek. Below the images are ten more plaques, bearing the words misdescription / misinformation / misidentify / misdiagnose / misfunction / mistranscribe /misremember / misgauge / misconstrue / mistranslate. Five images might only be one image, but they can generate at least twice as many forms of misrepresentation. A good warning for art critics, that—and for anyone else who thinks it’s easy to put words to what one sees.