American Signal Code: On the Nature of Pain, 1990.
Deborah Oropallo (American, born 1954)
Oil and encaustic on canvas with fabric and thread, 80 x 80 in. Crocker Art Museum Purchase, 1990.5.

Berkeley artist Deborah Oropallo combines traditional painting techniques with mechanically reproduced imagery in order to convey abstract ideas regarding how we create and receive meaning. For the artist, the act of painting leaves behind a record of personal expression for which there is no substitute. It also allows the release of spiritual yearning through the handling of materials. Yet, while she encodes her paintings with narrative threads, she never wants her stories to be more important than the sensual experience of viewing the painting.

In the 1990s, Oropallo began her series of How-To paintings. These were inspired by illustrated pamphlets teaching the rudimentary steps of activities such as tying a knot or providing first aid. This painting addresses the invention and use of codes in order to conceal secret communications. Her starting point for American Signal Code was found in the U.S. Navy’s 1931 International Book of Signals, in a chapter of codes titled “The Nature of Pain.” By outlining the sign for the Red Cross with thread—like a Girl Scout achievement badge sewn to the canvas—Oropallo transforms an ominous notion into a universal message of rescue.

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