Spontaneous Hues: Elizabeth Schwartz’s solo show "RED" at WSG Gallery


Elizabeth Schwartz paintings, Celebrating Scarlet and The Power of Red

From left to right: Celebrating Scarlet, 36" x 36"; The Power of Red, 36" x 36".

"I love red!” Elizabeth Schwartz exclaims -- and the artist clearly means what she says. RED, her solo exhibit at WSG Gallery, explores and celebrates a powerful hue freighted with cultural and emotional significance. In her most recent series of 11 abstract acrylic paintings on canvas, she shows herself to be a spontaneous colorist who’s not afraid to tackle the contradictory connotations of a color that can project courage, passion, sexuality, danger, aggression, and love.

Fine art is a second career for Schwartz, whose first profession was the law.  “I started as a criminal appellate attorney in Detroit and became the deputy director of that office. Then I worked for the [Michigan] Public Service Commission and then the state Attorney General’s office. [Later] I came to Ann Arbor as City Attorney before being appointed an administrative law judge." She continues, “I started painting while I was [still] lawyering … a friend of mine, Fred Horowitz, taught [art] at Washtenaw [Community College]. He was a longtime friend and I was growing weary of law practice. He just changed my life. He said, ‘Take my class -- I may not teach you how to draw, but I can teach you how to see.’ It was magic."

Before her transformative art class, Schwartz had never considered becoming an artist. “I’d always appreciated art [as a member] of the general public.” But, she recalls, “after that, I couldn’t stay away from art materials and art, which was really new for me. … Nobody could be more surprised than I [was]!”

Schwartz describes the contrast between her left-brain legal mind and her right-brain painterly thought process: “I told somebody that [I have] a dual personality because the office where I do my law work is neat and then my studio is just chaos. … I’ve got painter’s A.D.D. -- I want some of this and some of that. I don’t do sketches or plan it out.” She adds, “I often begin with some piece of a landscape in my head … sometimes I’m painting the seasons without realizing it. In the autumn I’m using those [fall] colors. In the winter is the only time I make white paintings.”

Schwartz works instinctually, responding to her environment, or even more directly, to a color or a mark she has made. “I start out, depending on my mood, painting intuitively … just a color or a certain [brush]stroke will appeal to me and I put it on the canvas and go from there. [Then] I respond to what’s happening on the canvas. … Almost every one of my paintings will have several paintings underneath.  I don’t cover them -- I try to make something of whatever’s there.”

Elizabeth Schwartz paintings, Mysterious Relationship, A Splash of Magenta, Don’t Fence Me In

From left to right: Mysterious Relationship, 36" x 36", A Splash of Magenta, 36" x 36", Don’t Fence Me In, 36" x 36".

The 11 paintings in RED are mostly square format acrylics on canvas, ranging in size from two small 24” x 24” paintings to the large centerpiece of the exhibit, Out in Crimson Space, which measures 54” x 56”. In most of the work, Schwartz has applied color thickly, creating strong impasto effects punctuated with the occasional brush stroke. The clotted surfaces hint at previous iterations of the paintings underneath. “This is a [palette knife] method I’ve used early on, and then came back to,” she says. In her large painting Out in Crimson Space, however, Schwartz has departed from this technique, and uses a large round brush and brayer to create a smoother surface with a more luminous, atmospheric effect reminiscent of the veils of color one might see in a Rothko painting.

In RED, the visceral effect of the color animates the artist’s creative impulse. Schwartz works with a broad array of different reds -- pyrrole red, the cadmiums, light and medium, and more, mixed on a palette or sometimes even on the surface of the painting.  "I don't know that I've ever used a color out of a tube," she says. "I'm always mixing colors. I put them in a great big muffin tin -- I have a whole muffin tin of reds. ... I love putting colors next to each other for a big surprise."

After 20 years working as a painter in Ann Arbor, and 12 as a member of WSG Gallery, Schwartz has great affection for her fellow artists and for Ann Arbor’s art scene as a whole. "I like that there’s a very large art community [in Ann Arbor]. … When I became a member at WSG, it was just a fabulous community. It’s amazing that there can be 16 or 17 of us from time to time and we all get along great and probably most of us love each other. There’s not that sense of competition. Everybody’s happy when something good happens for someone else and I don’t think that’s very typical."

K.A. Letts is an artist and art blogger. She has shown her work regionally and nationally and in 2015 won the Toledo Federation of Art Societies Purchase Award while participating in the TAAE95 Exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art. You can find more of her work at RustbeltArts.com.

Elizabeth Schwartz’s solo show "Red" is on view at WSG Gallery, 306 S. Main St., Ann Arbor, from September 4 - October 13. For more information about the exhibit and the gallery, visit wsg-art.com.