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Land of Misfit Art

Heide Trepanier is leading Richmond's "misfit" artists with her award-winning work and a new kind of gallery space.


"Great things are happening," she acknowledges, seated in the cavernous loft space that she and three other local artists recently dubbed The Orange Door and opened for business. Located at 12 W. Broad St., the gallery is near First Friday mainstay galleries 1708 and Artspace. With it, Trepanier and her partners, Katie Shaw, Grady Smith and Sarah Owen, hope to offer Richmond a venue for diverse and dynamic art, including "experimental work such as performance art, video, dance troupes, poetry slams — work that's not bought and sold easily." Trepanier believes that there are artists and patrons out there who feel as starved for this as she does — people who want to jump-start the local art scene she characterizes as "too conservative and apathetic" with fresher, nervier work. "This is the land of misfit art," she laughs, gesturing at the long, drafty space behind her.

Orange Door came about when Trepanier and her colleagues "got tired of complaining about Richmond not having a space for these things. One night we just sat down and, over a bottle of wine, plotted our course." While officially a "for profit" gallery, its raison d'etre is more Bohemian and idealistic: Trepanier wants Orange Door to serve as a venue for overlooked art, but also as a "scene" for local artists to meet, relax and talk art-talk. So the gallery funds itself not with art sales but with a small cover charge after 9 p.m., when the gallery shifts gears and offers a DJ, cafe tables, ashtrays, drink donation bar, and a fun, funky space to wrap up an evening spent hoofing the monthly route of gallery openings. Such places are common enough in art hubs like New York or Chicago, but are hard to keep financially afloat in smaller cities like Richmond. Still, Trepanier hopes to buck the odds and keep Orange Door alive as a much-needed show- and meeting-place for cutting-edge artists who have "fire, passion, and relevance."

Not coincidentally, playful examples of those qualities, along with mordant wit, are abundant in her own artwork, for which she recently won both a Virginia Commission for the Arts grant and a Virginia Museum of Fine Arts fellowship. At first glance, her paintings seem nonrepresentational: In each an intensely saturated color-field is festooned with various skeins and squiggles of paint, as if the ejaculatory drips of a Pollock painting had been grafted onto the surface of one by Rothko or Reinhardt. But Trepanier's drips and drops have a curious sense of presence and seem to interact with one another like living things. "Some paint blobs are eating each other, some are reaching for other things, and some are trying to incorporate shapes into their own shapes," Trepanier — who has a background in biology — explains. The festive, over-the-top colors and biomorphic forms evoke artists from Miro to Dr. Seuss, but the interactions between her paint splatters are rooted, metaphorically, in a critical vision of human interaction made more explicit in titles like "Lack," "Eros of Envy" and "Potential Problems in Future Relationships."

"I think of myself as a socio-political and cultural satirist," she says. Each painting is designed around actual narratives in which her drips "become characters that play out feelings of inadequacy, fear and greed." Potentially heady stuff, but in the hands of Trepanier - who says she is a humanist, not a cynic — the satire is biting but not didactic. "No one likes to be preached at," she says, "including me." The little squiggles, squirts and dashes of paint that duke it out across the surface of her paintings call to mind the curiously detached picture of humanity one gets looking out a skyscraper window at the writhing chaos of tiny forms moving below. Seen from a distance, all the complex dramas of human life acted out by that bustling ant colony seem so exhausting and ultimately pointless that it's hard not to laugh. Luckily, Trepanier has found a way to harness that weary laughter and infuse it into her own idiosyncratic art. And if she and her partners can keep The Orange Door open, Richmond will have a vital new forum where other "misfit" artists can fit in as well.

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