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In Good Company

Three area artists would like to thank the academy.

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To give you an idea of how selective the academy is, let's talk numbers for a second. To seek out the country's most promising talent each year, the academy holds an exhibition that is essentially the "American Idol" of the visual arts (only classy and conspicuously devoid of obnoxious British judges). If the select panel of members chooses to include one of your paintings, you have beaten almost insurmountable odds. Of the multitude of artists who submit works for consideration, only 20 to 35 are selected for the exhibit, and only approximately seven are granted awards from the academy. So that the Richmond area can claim three artists who have been honored in the academy's last two exhibits is not just a feather in the cap of the local art scene — it's a whole Vegas showgirl headdress.

Heide Trepanier, Robert Stuart and Kendall Buster, all Central Virginia residents, have each been recognized at the annual academy exhibit, with Stuart and Buster winning awards. Meanwhile, the academy's purchase program selected a painting by Trepanier and subsequently donated it to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky., where it will share wall space with works by Barbara Kruger, Hans Hoffman and Andy Warhol.

Richmond can indeed be proud, and on April 7, these artists will be honored at the annual art auction and gala to benefit the Faison School for Autism. Trepanier and Stuart will donate one painting each to the auction. Buster, whose large-scale sculptures are less auction-friendly than smaller canvases, will not be submitting a work for purchase but will attend the event.

To attempt to describe Heide Trepanier's work is to discover the inefficiency of language. Defying categorization, her whimsical paintings fly in the face of every Art History 101 textbook's categorization of artists. At first glance, the impulse to compare her work to that of legendary drip artist Jackson Pollock is strong, but this simple comparison hardly manages to encapsulate the complexity of her images. For starters, Pollock's drip paintings were specifically not figural, while Trepanier's works often are. Yet, while her paintings are too figural to be abstract, they are also too abstract to be narrative, even if the painted "figures" are often engaging in some kind of activity. For instance, "Rider" depicts a willowy, almost cartoonlike character constructed entirely of whorls of rapidly dribbled paint, orgasmically riding a wave of white against the canary-yellow surface. Similarly, "The Juice of Lulu" also epitomizes the delicious, candy-colored lunacy that Trepanier's wispy figures and skeins of paint communicate so well. Set against a kelly-green panel, enamels in peach and flesh tones coagulate to create a kind of biomorphic figure that looks like a Dr. Seuss character acid-tripping in hell — and having a great time.

To create depth and a whirlwind sense of movement, Trepanier applies the paint, often of shockingly vivid hue, to the surface using squirt bottles with tips of varying sizes. The brushless method allows her to draw with paint, so to speak, but without the sharp finality of a defined line. The paint splatters and sprays, never conforming to the oh-so-boring, shirt-and-tie rigidity of an outline. It never tries to be something it's not.

Robert Stuart and Heide Trepanier are both painters, but aside from academy recognition, the similarities end there. Early in his career, Stuart, who is a resident of Staunton and received an award from the academy in 2004, began painting landscapes and still lifes that were rather abstract, with large color panels representing the sides of barns, swathes of farmland or yards of tablecloth. More recently, his works have veered toward abstract expressionism. Favoring blurred fields, or "cracks" of color that seem to bleed into surrounding darkness, Stuart creates ethereal paintings that are at once geometric and dreamlike — a fitting mood for such otherworldly subjects as "Starlight" and "Green Meditation."

The fuzzy lines of color seep into the background of Stuart's paintings, but his technique does not rely on soaking watery paint into an absorbent canvas like such "stain painters" as Helen Frankenthaler (an Academy member since 1974). Rather, Stuart applies the paint with a palette knife, creating thick bands of color against a monochromatic background. He then applies cold wax to the surface to create an impasto — a sort of three-dimensional buildup of paint — as well as a sheen that contributes to the paintings' ghostly mood.

With paintings in the Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C., and countless galleries and collections across the country, you might wonder if Stuart's ego is as big as his accomplishments. After all, when your work is mingling with paintings by Modigliani and Corot and prints by Chuck Close and Toulouse-Lautrec, you know you've arrived, and any recipient of the highest award from the Academy of Arts and Letters has definitely earned bragging rights. But, ever humble, this rural artist chalked up the "unexpected honor" of the award to his "very good fortune." He will certainly pass on this fortune to the lucky bidder on his submission in the April 7 auction.

If size matters in the art world, Kendall Buster's sculptures win, which is just what her work did at the Academy's 2005 exhibition, where she received an award. Regularly churning out works large enough to be mistaken for architecture, she tends to think big. So voluminous viewers can often stand inside them, her works seek to create an integrated environment for sculpture, venue and viewer. "Subterrain," for instance, is a wood-and-PVC-sheet structure that resembles the underside of a glacier, which at its highest point is 35 feet tall. The irony? Buster holds an undergraduate degree in medical technology, and titles such as "Cells" and "Parabiosis" (the fusion of embryos that can result in conjoined twins) reveal the influence of the peculiar shapes of microbiology on her art. In blowing up the planet's tiniest shapes to proportions nearly requiring a zoning license, Buster creates sculptures that are, in a variety of ways, organic.

Buster's resumé is almost as formidable as the scale of her works. With sculptures in the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City and in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., the Virginia Commonwealth University art professor has made her mark on the art world by creating works that, like those of Trepanier and Stuart, defy classification. Technically sculpture, the undulating lines of "Parabiosis" recall the modern architectural designs of Eero Saarinen or Louis I. Kahn. Considering that the elite circle of award winners from the American Academy of Arts and Letters is harder to get into than Howard Hughes' sock drawer, Richmond can loudly and proudly celebrate its talented trio of artists — and all for a good cause to boot. S

Art For Autism 2006 benefiting the Faison School for Autism takes place April 7 at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. Tickets are $175. For more information, contact Reynolds Gallery at 355-6553 or the Faison School at 827-3801.

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