Showing, Saying, Whistling


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?

more from Barry Schwabsky at The Nation here.