Svetlana Trefilova ‘Inner Scapes: Fragile’ exhibition

Critical review for artist and microbiologist, Svetlana Trefilova
by Angela Meyer PhD.

‘Inner Scapes: Fragile’ exhibition by Svetlana Trefilova

Svetlana Trefilova’s Inner Scapes: Fragile exhibition at Tableland Regional Gallery shares her research experiments from her four series’ presented here as the Petri dish, Moreton Island, Girraween and myrtle rust. The micro and macro explorations give two dynamic perspectives where the human eye and the microscope reflect the natural and the invented to produce a way of viewing the world.


Figure 1. Svetlana Trefilova, Overleaf, mixed media on paper, 35cm x 45cm, 2015

Brisbane based artist Svetlana Trefilova uses science to underpin her ideas and experiments where each painting is itself a science experiment. Trefilova’s current research focusses on myrtle rust which damages the Myrtaceae[1] family including eucalyptus trees. This scientific problem sparks a way of viewing patterns in the micro field, where her interest is directed by the degradation of the natural environment. Her work however is not just an illustration of a scientific problem; it is a metaphor of her creative expression which includes her emotional and visual recording of nature presented here in groups of microscopic forms or families of works. Her approach is based on the Petri dish[2] which she uses in her microbiologist role as a scientist, and she transcribes the images and ideas on to paper, canvas, and film to understand the relationship between the micro and macro world.

The Inner Scapes: Fragile exhibition is comprised of her smaller works because the cost of freight on the larger paintings meant that it is expensive to move work between north Queensland and Brisbane. She has included medium sized paper works, paintings and a digital screen in the Tableland Regional Gallery. The curatorial decisions could have produced a stronger narrative by grouping the works together, sequenced from their original series. However, the consideration of the circular gallery favours balancing the entire space.

The paintings are produced by layering colours and forms to create depth in the image. She firstly applies the coloured ink and watery acrylic as gestural background washes, which she achieves through diluting the paint consistency to water solubility, then she adds detailed drawings of microorganisms. The details are the images of cell structures in oval shapes and drawn with pen and ink. The paintings oscillate between the real world and a scientific projection; but the forms themselves are abstracted and escape a real identification with tangible imagery.

Trefilova states that she is developing a painting style that is innovating an approach to the medium, “My idea – I am developing a medium and innovating watery painting technique” (Trefilova, 2016). Water as a key principle emerges as it is used as a dilutant. Water is the base into which she places tissue from her biology experiments of a cut leaf placed on a sample slide. The leaf cells are then submerged in water which is necessary for viewing the samples. When she transcribes her vision of the slide to painting she explains that what she sees is an intertwining between colour and texture. She breaks the layers into colour first, and then the watery wash ground. With this base she then draws and paints the image details, cells structures, microorganisms with growth horns, bacteria and other organic forms. Trefilova states that the overleaf bacteria actually live on the top of leaves so it makes sense to paint the forms over the initial layer of abstract watery imagery (see figure 1).

Trefilova’s campaign to display the microorganisms in a painted context is actually her way of sharing her vision through the lens of the microscope. She states, “People can see the micro-world – to show life that exists, that is not otherwise visible to the human eye – to show nature that exists” (Trefilova, 2016). The viewer is left to question if the images are art or science, or perhaps both? In terms of solving painting problems, composition is always the end point, and Trefilova achieves density through her nebulous and translucent surfaces.

Colour is a key principle in her work; the paintings are bright blue, pink, red, orange and green, with ranges of ochres, tans and siennas. Her approach to colour is again anchored in her laboratory processes. Trefilova explains that she uses dyes for looking at her cell structures under the microscope. The bright dyes react differently with the organic cells in the tissue and if the experiments are successful then it is possible to see the different elements of the cell in dispersed colours. The colour in the paintings is not about isolating the cell structures but is a unifying system that for her represents creative freedom.

In Refraction we see multilayered biological forms which she paints as cells or rocks, or could be arbitrary and what she calls “something else” (Trefilova, 2016). This is her imaginative leap from the science of looking and recording to the response she finds in the abstractions of shapes, not necessarily linked to science. But the spontaneity of creativity is founded on her hours of looking through the microscope. She states that when she is in the studio she is using memory of shapes and structures, and memory is the basis of the compositions, along with the digital recordings she has made as prompts (see figure 2).


Figure 2. Svetlana Trefilova, Refractions, mixed media on paper, 35cm x 45cm, 2016

Trefilova’s paintings of micro-worlds depict representations of the living micro-forms on the top of leaves, which actually exist all around us but are not visible and appear as abstractions and patterns. Whereas, in Reef, the landscape tradition is evident in her work, similar in the style to that of the painter John Wolseley (See figure 3). Lantana is a single detailed botanical image that emerges from her exhibition and seems almost out of place, until she links the image to the idea of threatening nature, as a weed, brought to Australia but which suffocates other native plants.


Figure 3. Svetlana Trefilova, The reef, mixed media on paper, 35cm x 45cm, 2014

The Girraween painting series are a reflection on the work for her Master’s thesis which she said focussed on John Wolseley. The reef and trees that came from her Moreton Island series indicate that Trefilova stylistically swings between traditional landscape art and abstract contemporary imagery. Given that imagery is of a micro and macro world, it would seem opportunistic to keep this tension active. The currents of her work are the visible and the invisible, abstraction and representation sometimes recognisable as reef and trees.

The Mapping Realm of Life series contains batik like patterns to suggest the structures that exist in nature. The technique was developed at a Moreton Island Art Camp. The technique aims to create pattern from Condy’s crystals which are potassium permanganate. With the Condy’s crystals Trefilova creates a sienna/tan wash across the ground, and then to achieve the white lines, she draws with lemon juice, and finally adds a further layer of drawing over the surfaces.


Figure 4. Svetlana Trefilova, Broken Boundaries, mixed media on paper, 35cm x 45cm, 2015

The ink painting Broken Boundaries reflect on how she can be more efficient with viewing her tissue under slide, she devised a way of cutting the leaf at an angle to see more of the cells, however the fine linear layer of cells is subject to breaking; hence, broken boundary (see figure 4). For her the cut boundary is a metaphor for a mental boundary which could be either good or bad, as depression or anxiety, but could also mean the possibility of discovering new worlds. Sometimes when she experiments or plays with paint she states that,

The medium gives me a gift – the work happens by itself. Although, nothing happens by itself, because I am directing – but the results factor in chance. By chance and choice – it is how I constantly work – by researching the medium, I am learning how to manipulate and control the effect so that they look like they [paintings] are done by chance, even though they are not (Trefilova, 2016).

The paintings that emulate the myrtle rust cells achieve a cosmic aesthetic; of planets in space with stardust and galaxies. Perhaps these images which are the most recent of the experiments could have further texture, or layers to deepen the visual space of the painted surface, and this may be achieved through further investigations. The fascination with the myrtle rust is the damaged cell structures which look like outer space or another world. The other space she depicts is actually the micro-world, tracking the invisible to produce a visible image.

Trefilova made the mental leap to not only use digital technology to record information for her paintings, but saw that the digital images were art works themselves, capable of communicating things like the cells breathing and drinking. The digital interpretations of the trichomes[3] portray the micro parts of plant organisms in a state of movement. The movement comes from processes like the plant absorbing water or the plant breathing. Trefilova explained that the natural eye and the camera cannot see this happen, but by the video process, where the focus is digitally moved, the camera mimics the real process and this is where technology achieves the possibility of making the invisible visible. She discovered this technique at Griffith University when she had her tablet connected to the oculars looking for images to paint. She thought the tablet would store images for memory, but changing focus was moving the image of the trichomes; and through this technical trick she could recreate the visual reality of the living process of the cell, which in her exhibition video plays out as a tranquil bubbling of simple forms.


Figure 5. Svetlana Trefilova, Stomata Cells, digital screen image, 55cm x 75cm, 2016

When asked what she likes about digital technology, she replied that, “I see it as a continuation of painting…as an expansion of paint” (Trefilova, 2016). Trefilova feels that painting is her medium, whereas digital collects information for painting. However, digital has the advantage of showing bio-elements, how plants breathe and feed, as well as how they open and close their structures which are otherwise invisible. By making the video it is creating an illusion of natural movement that we otherwise can’t see. Perhaps then, movement is a primary reason, to show detailed inner process and transfer knowledge of the systems and structures of living organisms (see figure 5).


Figure 6. Svetlana Trefilova, The Era of Photosymthesis, mixed media on paper, 55cm x 75cm, 2016.

In The Era of Photosynthesis oxygen and carbon dioxide are painted to reveal the release of gasses through the cell structures, but which look like a cosmos or galaxy (see figure 6). The cosmic micro-world is a pendulum of the minute and the majestic. Trefilova’s imagery sometimes features Petri dishes of bright neon jewels that belie the bacteria of rust, or inked tissue of leaves which produce references to Wassily Kandinsly, Joan Miro, Paul Klee and Cy Twombly. Trefilova reflects on Kandinsky and Miro, who participated in the movement of bio-morphism and used the biological forms for their art, which then became surrealism. However the influence of John Wolseley and John Olsen is more evident in the landscape works. Otherwise we can see an echo of Ian Fairweather’s expressive lines and this would be a strengthening direction. This difference in aesthetic in how images are designed; between the abstract and the representational and firmly indicates a split visual journey concerning the landscape at the visible level, and the micro-cosmos of the invisible made visible.

Inner Scapes: Fragile, Tableland Regional Gallery, 30 August – 30 September 2016.

Following exhibitions: Solo exhibition, Redcliffe City Art Gallery, November – December 2016

Solo exhibition, Gympie Regional Gallery, April – May 2017

[1] Myrtaceae includes myrtle, pohutukawa, bay rum trees, clove, guava, acca (feijoa), allspice and eucalyptus.

[2] A small dish that is transparent, circular and shallow and used to culture microorganisms.

[3] Small outgrowth of hair from plant epidermis, usually unicellular or glandular.

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