When it comes to her artwork, Elise Schweitzer prefers everything be as big as life.
Huge canvases are filled with life-size dancers, surprised party guests and rampaging half men-half horses. Oil paintings stretch more than 12 feet across.
Bigger surfaces provide more leeway for Schweitzer to create her unique and colorful artwork. Her most recent exhibition, “Centaurs and Bellydancers,” combines autobiographical events in her life, such as planning a wedding, with the fantastical and surreal. The exhibition opens Friday.
“Some of them have things that are totally ridiculous, even though they’re very serious paintings. I wanted to challenge myself to match that or at least approach that in my paintings,” she said.
Schweitzer has been painting for most of her life, studying art in high school before attending the University of Pennsylvania to earn her bachelor’s degree in art. Subsequent studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and master’s level courses at Indiana University have honed her skills.
Much of her inspiration comes from the European Renaissance school of painting. During her studies, she was able to visit Italy and Spain to observe some of the greatest paintings in history. She appreciated the fact that many of the works were fun and not so self-important as many modern paintings.
Schweitzer tries to replicate that atmosphere in her work. Her figures are realistic, with elements of fantasy that give each work a twist.
“I think a lot of contemporary art leaves a lot of people flat. They don’t know what they’re supposed to see in it. I want to be fun, maybe surprising,” she said.
“Centaurs and Bellydancers” will be on display during November at Gallery 924, 924 N. Pennsylvania St., Indianapolis. An opening reception will be 6 to 9 p.m. Friday. Admission is free.
Normal gallery hours are 10 to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday and 10 to 6 p.m. Thursday.
What is the focus of “Centaurs and Bellydancers”?
The paintings are autobiography through allegory. They have large figures doing things, and they’re kind of in the grand European painting tradition. They’re very realistic, but have unexpected events in them. In one of them, there’s a group of people having a party in the park somewhere, and while they’re doing that, they’re interrupted by a group of centaurs who come in and start destroying things, throwing things and chasing people. The autobiography behind it is at the time, I was planning my wedding. I thought, what’s the worst thing that could happen? I’ll paint that, and then all of the little things won’t seem as bad.
What drew you toward this style?
I’ve been painting for a long time, and I went to IU grad school for painting. The first skill I had to develop was being able to paint what’s in front of me in a way that’s meaningful to me. After I felt like I could do that, it became a larger question. What do these paintings mean to me, how can I keep myself interested in them, and how can I address the paintings that inspired me to begin doing art in the first place? I’ve been able to travel a couple times to Italy and to Spain, and the complexity and ambition and the invention of all of these great works of art from the Renaissance are delightful. They’re so much fun to look at.
Looking back at your beginnings as an artist, what drew you to art in the first place?
When I was in high school, I was either going to be a biologist or I was going to go into art. It was 50-50 for me. I think what I find so rich about art are the different layers of understanding or thought or knowledge that can go into a painting. You’re starting to think about how the image was made, what it meant to people at that time, what it means to people now. This layering of thought that goes into a work of art, it’s similar to the way I was interested in biology. I studied anatomy a lot; you can look at a body and understand it at one level, how it works. But you can also understand what its history is, how it evolved, how it functions, how it doesn’t function. It’s the same idea.
What do you hope people take away from this exhibition?
I hope they’re entertained by it. A lot of the paintings have a lot of different reads to them. Maybe the colors are very happy, but the subject is kind of sad. I hope people interact with them differently.