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Where Things Come Together, Where They Fall Apart 

For her latest series of paintings, Richmond artist Heide Trepanier found a willing collaborator in solitude.

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Artist Heide Trepanier’s work consistently reflects the times in which we live.

In her latest exhibition at Reynolds Gallery, “This is Fine,” Trepanier includes a painting titled “15 Minutes of Freedom.” While the title is clearly a play on Andy Warhol's most legendary quotation, the artist also saw it as a sentiment with which we can all agree.

“Each of these paintings is simultaneously connected to the chaotic whirlwind of the last two years and to each other stylistically,” Trepanier explains. “I’m guessing I’ll look back on this work and remember, yeah, I survived that time because of those paintings."

The work is different than her shows of the past decade in that all the pieces are paintings with no elements of photography or videography. Stylistically, they’re reminiscent of her work from the distant past and her technique of splattering paint over large canvases and outlining the results with a fine ink pen. However, these new paintings speak to her need to create something familiar in a psychologically and physically closed space with limited interaction, limited external exploration and an abundance of internal exploration.

“Painting and drawing have always united in my work,” she says. “But my work is neither just ‘painting and drawing,’ just as it’s been neither abstract nor narrative, poetic or base, motion or stillness.”

Throughout Trepanier’s acclaimed career, the word chaos has been a frequent descriptor of her work. When VMFA’s former curator of 21st century art John Ravenal acquired her painting, “Wave,” for the museum’s collection, he went on record as calling it “simply a really good painting,” while ticking off her skill in controlling her materials, how she understands color, and her confidence working on a large scale. Trepanier, he explained, embraces elements of chance but also possesses the virtuosity to turn accident into art.

Trepanier admits that chaos is usually always in the conversations and references in her work. “I try to always keep in mind how important tension is in these paintings,” she says. “The point where things are just about to come together or just about to fall apart.”

The past two years have been almost simultaneously awful for her – she lost both parents, including her father to COVID a year ago.

“In that time, I’ve reckoned with what it means to be alone and not lonely. And what it means to grieve, in a complicated way, the parents who weren’t what you needed when you were younger, but [who] you loved nonetheless,” she explains, adding that the effects of the pandemic on herself and her friends were significant. “While it’s grooved with my fairly anti-social proclivities in some ways, it’s caused serious problems for the people I love. And that’s very, very hard.”

Fortunately, Trepanier has been able to utilize the time to work in her studio in a way that allowed her to process the shock, grief and languishing by making work that is incredibly labor-intensive, detailed and meditative. In her view, “The solitude this work has given me is what I needed, and I’m grateful for it.”

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That gratitude is expressed tongue-in-cheek, yet entirely seriously, with the exhibition’s title. It’s taken from a meme of a dog sitting calmly on a chair in a room on fire, his eyes big and his speech bubble reading, "This is fine." She admits that, dorky as it maybe to explain a meme, this one about sums it up for her. “The biggest thing that’s changed is that I have such a great support system and a great community,” she says. “I feel confident to be able to take huge risks and also to circle back without feeling like I’m wed to one way of working.”

Much of that confidence comes from thinking of herself as a 52-year-old child. The years have brought about an intuition she now trusts, along with an acceptance of herself and her practice that allows her to pretty much do whatever the hell she wants, creatively speaking. The child in her seeks inspiration and awe from the small things – rocks, mushrooms, children's laughter – because in them reside the answers to the big things.

At this point, Trepanier can only handle the little things at a snail’s pace.

“I can't handle some of the bigger problems we face, so I’ve set up my life in the only way I can to withstand what the last two years have brought,” she says. “I have no boss, no time clock, and thankfully, I’m in the privileged situation to shut myself away and work with the things I care about the most, my kid and my work.”

One of her long-time coping strategies over the past five years has been taking big breaks from work. Being an artist in 2022, she says, means giving yourself time and space, not just for self-preservation or reflection but the time and space to be totally bored. For example, she’s off all social media (but Instagram) and takes frequent time-outs from that.

“I’m fighting the lure of constant productivity and busyness being a default energy. Because some of the best stuff happens when you have the kind of pent-up energy that comes from boredom,” she admits. “That's how I find awe in the little things.

“I guess my 2022 New Year’s resolution is to be bored more often.”

“This is Fine” opened Jan. 14 at Reynolds Gallery, 1514 W. Main Street. The opening reception will be postponed due to pandemic numbers and rescheduled for the end of February. Visit reynoldsgallery.com for more information.

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