Richmond Artist Heide Trepanier Gets Personal With Works that Draw from Science 

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It’s one thing to be comfortable with the stuff produced by the human body. Being comfortable using it as a material for your art comes later, Heide Trepanier says.

Some of the works in the local painter and photographer’s new show at Reynolds Gallery, “Perverse Totems,” have the artist dropping alcohol-based inks onto breast milk to allow the inks and milk to chemically react causing pigment to flow, coagulate and disperse, ultimately resembling riverbeds and mountain ranges on a topographic map.

“I started using milk because it’s just thick enough to hold the ink up because of the fats in it,” she says. The alcohol-based paints curdle the fat in milk — whether breast, cow or goat milk — each of which she uses in various pieces to cause different reactions. Some paints get locked into the fat while others resist it. It’s a process that appeals to the science geek in her.

“I spent three years studying biology before realizing I didn’t want to work cooped up in a lab all day,” she says. “With these works, it really feels like I’m discovering things in a lab situation. Science and art are the same to me. It’s just about where you do your research. My goal is to make chaos happen and capture it.”

She likens the works to the view seen through a microscope lens, a way to see a small piece of something much larger.

Once the artist has combined her materials in plastic tubs, she photographs hundreds of images of the effects in her light-filled studio. In an effort to bridge the gap between painting and photography, Trepanier chooses one digital image to print and deletes all the others, keeping only one low-resolution JPEG for the gallery’s media purposes. That’s significant because in this way, as with painting, there’s only one original piece.

“It’s become a very ecstatic experience,” she says from the gallery, surrounded by paintings and photographs completed in the past year and a half. “I feel more connected to the work than any of my other work, but I’m terrified of it, too. All artists fear being irrelevant. These speak more to who I am and what I’m interested in and less to our times. They don’t answer to pop culture or political culture. They speak to the layers of questions I have in my adult life.”

The pieces in her show represent a huge leap for Trepanier, because her past work was completely material-based and the new works are process-based. The change leaves her feeling more vulnerable than she’s ever felt in her artistic life, partly because she used to dismiss process-based work.

“I looked at process-based work and always thought it didn’t have enough for me. I never thought I’d turn into that,” she says. “Some of these are blurry because the materials are in motion. You’re looking at the surface of something moving. I love that.”

She attributes the change in attitude to having developed a sense of confidence to pursue something a bit riskier. Much of her earlier work had socially conscious undertones, something she no longer feels compelled to consider.

“It comes with knowing who you are and not giving a shit about what people think. You’re just doing the work you need to do,” she says. “I like to say it’s less about acting out and more about understanding within.”

The pieces in “Perverse Totems” are divided into three categories: “Of Milk,” “Of Water” and “Of the Sea,” the latter making use of carrageenan, a derivative of red edible seaweed often used as a thickening agent. Breast milk and seaweed aside, Trepanier continues to seek out new materials.

“This is the tip of the iceberg. I’m trying to resist capitalism and the art market game, which is destroying the fabric of what we are doing. Being creative is a way to connect with something on a higher level.” S

“Perverse Totems” runs through Oct. 30 at Reynolds Gallery, 1514 W. Main St.


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