Article by John Fleming


anice Gurney is a contemporary painter whose recent work expresses an apparently binary semiotic in what she has called “punctuation in translation” or as we viewers might say,
“punctuation painting.” Intrigued by a quotation in P.D. James’s novel Original Sin taken from the
Meditations of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121-180) and used by James in the eulogy of a
murder victim, Gurney began to look into English translations of this philosopher-emperor’s musings on
time and substance. She soon discovered that the Loeb classic version of the Meditations was only one of
many stretching over five centuries of English translations alone, from at least 1634 to 2006. While curiosity may not be the first mother of invention, an artist’s powers of observation are perhaps more acute than ours as common readers and viewers of the written
word. Not only did the translation of specific words
and the grammatical organization of the short text
from Marcus Aurelius vary from one translation to
the next, so too did the punctuation which
followed patterns particular to the several time
periods and the translator’s skill with the lexicon
and phrasing of philosophical discourse and
contemporary usage. Gurney’s eye was attracted by
the ways in which punctuation guided the invisible
but present voice revealed through commas,
colons, semi-colons, periods, dashes, a question
mark and even an exclamation. The punctuation
suggested a performance, revealing the traditions
of orality that preceded and subtended the written
text, and in some sense, contained historical echoes
of the formal rhetoric and grammar at the centre of
classical education.

The jump to punctuation in painterly form had
perhaps already been prepared in part by Janice
Gurney’s long-standing interest in the appropriation
of other media and art works as a source of materials
to be recycled and renewed in original ways and
configurations. When asked whether the currents of
modernism had influenced her practice she agreed
that there was something of the minimalist in her
approach to this particular content: a text stripped
of its words, leaving behind “the bones of the
thought,” that is, the rhythms of speech, its pauses,
starts and stops, as in a meditation, a “difficulty,” and
with this a slowing down of time for the viewer who
might (or might not) participate in the creation of a
personal meaning.

Punctuation from the 1944 translation of the
original Greek by A.S.L. Farquharson of Marcus
Aurelius’s text that follows has been used in the
creation of the painting shown:

Let your imagination dwell continually upon the whole of
Time and the whole of Substance, and realize that their several
parts are, by comparison with Substance, a fig-seed; by comparison
with Time, the turn of a gimlet.

The making of the artwork consists largely of
layering, both physical (the paint) and intellectual
(the concept), beginning with evenly spaced
horizontal pencil lines that follow the lines of a
particular translation. These are maintained
through to the finished work. The distribution
along those lines of the commas, dashes, semicolon,
and period, may eventually appear as
random to the viewer although strictly coincident
with their position in the translated text. Torn
pieces of 1”masking tape are placed in different
configurations over each pencil-drawn punctuation
mark. The ground is then painted in Payne’s grey
applied in thin layers of about ten to twelve coats,
until the background takes on the value of a subtly
resonant blue/black. The tape is removed to reveal
the white paper. When the punctuation marks are
painted in, they appear to have been scattered
randomly with subtle variations in optical values of
red from painting to painting that follow succeeding
centuries from red oxide for the seventeenth
century to cadmium red deep for the twenty-first.

The punctuation paintings are part of a work
still in progress in which the hanging of a single
painting in an office surrounded with papers, books
and other miscellaneous objects, or the installation
of multiples in a gallery, co-opt their respective
surroundings. In the above image a comma and
three periods float in front of windows and a
ghostly chair and table, in the lower left corner of
the image, and establish a diagonal with leaves and
natural light at the upper right. What is the
relationship among spaces here? A moment of
reflection and we understand the double play of
light bringing together visually inside/outside as
the punctuation on a black background and the
glass over the painting create multiple and
ambiguous perspectives in the viewer’s perception.
One could say that two abstractions have been
balanced and reversed in these punctuation
paintings: the written words have been lost, the
absent orality of speech and performance has been
restored. In the end the larger problem of
representation, what is and is not simultaneously, is
proposed in an unusual and original way.

A native of Winnipeg, Janice Gurney now lives in Toronto.
She holds a BFA from the University of Winnipeg, a
Master of Visual Studies from the University of Toronto
and is currently completing a PhD from the University of
Western Ontario in the field of art and visual culture.

Punctuation in
Translation exhibition,
Wynick/Tuck Gallery,
Toronto, 2006

Janice Gurney