By Barbara Goldman
Almost daily throughout the fall and finishing this January, Lexington artist Aaron Skolnick recreated the same image of former American First Lady Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy, known more popularly as Jackie O. The images, 55 of them, which all depict Onassis at the time of her husband John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dealey Plaza, Dallas Texas, were the result of Skolnick’s daily artistic exercises that included physical constraints, time limits, and drawing the image from memory.
Although the pieces travel through a series of styles and mediums that grew from the artist’s daily exercises, they stay true to the original iconic image: the former first lady, adorned in her signature pink suit and hat, white glove in front of her mouth. Each piece spotlights different facial elements visible at different times.
Skolnick admits that it has been a challenge to take someone like Onassis who has been done so many times and to present her in a meaningful way.
“I loved these images because they are such ambiguously strong images for a man to draw. I also think it’s interesting for a gay man to draw a woman over and over again and have no sexual attraction to her. I really had to think of the power of image. I wanted to avoid shock value.”
Skolnick explains that the idea for the Jackie O’s came out of a project he worked on for a show this summer. In it, he recreated the image of JFK on the autopsy table after the assassination. The pieces were larger than life and depicted at irregular angles.
“I was concentrating on objectivity and the idea of contemporary sexuality, the desire of the flesh. It created a weird friction not wanting to be someone else who replicates the American dream, if that does exist.”
When Skolnick moved away from the autopsy table to fix his gaze on Onassis, similar themes emerged. “I wanted to recreate this moment that everyone purges themselves from. Jackie O became an idol after her husband died. Would she or JFK have been such idols if he hadn’t died? I wanted to take that moment and draw it, [this] desire to be someone in a position we all purge ourselves from.”
Skolnick’s Jackie O’s pull you in for a few brief moments to the emotion that she may have felt while playing her American role—a rare act in itself seeing as how Onassis nearly always appeared cool, vibrant, and collected.
“In such a fragile state she held her composure. She maintained that idea of beauty and understood what she had to be. “
Work can be aware of itself
For Skolnick, some of the pieces really want to repeat that idea of beauty. When he first began the daily exercises from which the Jackie O pieces are drawn, the images were mostly tight and vivid. Things gradually loosened. Blurry watercolor images resembled blow up dolls, resin encased line figures, and graphite appeared to fill backgrounds.
“Work can be aware of itself,” he says, and so all fifty-five pieces, all in white frames with white backgrounds, are meant for display side by side. The inspiration comes from Andy Warhol.
“Presentation has a lot to do with my work. Repetition always breaks up intimacy. But the frame makes them more intimate. It creates an awkward tension.”
Skolnick continues with the thought. “Some of these I don’t really like at all, and would never buy without seeing the others. You start making some images you even hate sometimes. Some work as background pieces elegantly framed, they are beautiful, but easy to pass up because they fit into the background.”
The intended effect is to take the viewer through an additional journey of art history, from Warhol and Shultz to Toyman.
“Some people don’t like giving their references, but I really like the idea of us being really aware of where we came from.”
It’s that sense of history, of embracing a past, that has drawn Skolnick local fans like Lexington mayor Jim Gray. “Remarkable artists are like remarkable people,” Gray observes about Skolnick’s development as an artist. “They don’t spring up full-grown overnight. It takes native talent, of course, then curiosity and the will to go against the grain; and big doses of discipline and commitment, and charisma, too. Aaron is meeting all those hurdles.”
Skolnick is still raising funds to pay for framing each piece, though he hopes to be ready within the next six months. He is also interested in showing a few of the pieces at a time. For more information visit aaronskolnick.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.