Repository 101: International Pain Symbol No. 6 | Art on Feeling

"Universal Pain Indicator (level 6)", acrylic and gouache on magazine paper, image courtesy of the artist Catherine Haley Epstein

“Universal Pain Indicator”, acrylic and gouache on magazine paper, image courtesy of the artist Catherine Haley Epstein

One can draw lines throughout art history from the beginning of modern art to the present day. Each line representing a theme so I’ve been told. One line from Paul Cézanne representing form and structure, the line would pull through the centuries all the way to James Turrell’s formal exploration of light. The second line would pull from the symbolism of Paul Gauguin up to the art of Yinka Shonibare. The third and last line would be tied firmly to Vincent Van Gogh and pull violently through history up to an artist such as Tracey Emin. This final line represents art concerned with feeling.

It’s this line of art, the messy art that confronts the human condition, the art that battles with the soul, and the art obsessed with the need to feel something, to touch something to take hold of something, this is the line of art I find myself most at home with, and most understanding of the artists’ intentions and desires. It’s no surprise that some of the first artists I was ever drawn to were Max Beckmann and Oskar Kokoschka. I am no stranger to violent and urgent expression.

Yesterday I just completed a submission to a gallery. I’m not sure if this call for artists was a joke, a test, or merely a moment where the charge of the artist (to be clever) switches seats with the gallery – much like it’s been the tendency of curators of the past 10 or fifteen years to switch seats with artists by taking direction of works like a composer, instead of simply caring for the work. The call for artists was a blank page in a magazine. The page was completely empty, except for a submission address and directions on the bottom of the page. Having just finished four months of application and rejections, I wearily and earnestly considered this call.

But what on earth is this a statement about? An artist is to “make a work of art in the blank space provided”, then mail it to the gallery. OK, arte povera I guess: poor materials and art, magazine paper and fine art. Thinking a little more about this, I am pained by the concept of artists making art to fit into this little white space, an advertising space, thinking someone might take this seriously. That to me is painful. Not the most painful thing in the world, but simply painful and awkward. I imagine the intern at the gallery in charge of opening the mail, laughing – “Look they’ve actually submitted something from this ad! HAHAHA.” Yes, that’s my insecure, doubtful artist thinking and talking. And well that insecure artist is always walking the line of feeling this pain of not being accepted or understood. That’s just being honest.

I stopped right there, and without putting any more thinking into this “call for artists”, I simply drew the universal pain symbol, the one you can find in most any hospital room. The international pain assessment scale is meant to assist non-English speaking patients, as well as people who are not used to feeling pain. The first picture on the scale, number 1, is a happy face (situation normal no pain), the very last picture, number 10, is that same face pale and defeated (loss of will to go on pain). For this submission I feel an international pain symbol number 6 is appropriate. It’s a pain in the ass to think through why a fancy gallery in NYC would want anyone to submit anything on a piece of magazine print, it’s a pain in the ass to think about whether they will respect said submissions once received, and it’s a pain in the ass to think that I probably won’t hear from them ever. But it’s not the worst thing in the world – I can think of far more painful things.

So in the spirit of urgency, my hand painted acrylic and gouache on magazine print was sent in all seriousness to the Brennan & Griffin Gallery. My middle finger representing the source of pain for any artist that might be doing some work with feeling. Art with feeling simply doesn’t translate well to a magazine page. Or does it?


The best way to get approval is not to need it. This is equally true in art and business. And love. And sex. And just about everything else worth having.
– Hugh MacLeod (from “Ignore Everybody, and 39 Other Keys to Creativity”)

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