On one wall, we see the young man with elegantly coiffed hair, an easy smile and tailored suit. If he weren't the president of the United States, he should be.
On the other wall, we see the same man's head, lying on a table, empty eyes staring up.
They are both works in Lexington artist Aaron Skolnick's exhibit Pick Me Up and Turn Me Round, showing through Dec. 21 at Lexington's Institute 193 gallery. In the exhibit, Skolnick re-examines some of the iconic images of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, showing how they have defined our impressions and the mythology of the president and his tragic death, 50 years ago Friday.
"I found this image of Kennedy, and it just blew my mind," Skolnick, 24, said Thursday morning in his downtown Lexington studio. "I drew it 20 times that summer."
That image, of Kennedy on the autopsy table, started a three-year journey with the Kennedys for Skolnick, a graduate of the University of Kentucky's art school. That included a time studying the first lady, Jacqueline, creating some work that took him to New York, where nine of his paintings of her were exhibited at the RARE gallery.
"I became very, very interested in Kennedy in that moment in time of the autopsy being this symbol of the American dream but also being in this time where we purge ourselves from that idea of being dead," Skolnick says. "So it became this dual image to me."
Skolnick eventually met Institute 193 director Phillip March Jones, who bought one of Skolnick's Kennedy paintings and talked to him about showing some of his work on the late president at the gallery. To do that, Skolnick wanted to create all new pieces.
"I wanted to go beyond the president on an autopsy table and really explore JFK," Skolnick says.
One thing that fascinates Skolnick is how completely Kennedy's final moments were documented, and how much potential was lost in one shocking moment. He says he has watched Abraham Zapruder's home movie of the assassination countless times, and "every time, I'm still just, like, (gasp). I still have that moment where I get my breath taken away because it's that moment of waving and then mayhem happens, and such a private moment is made so public."
It has been fashionable for younger commentators to downplay the impact of Kennedy's assassination, but Skolnick sees it as a defining moment of promise vanishing, but he maintains a clear-eyed assessment of the realities of Kennedy in his personal and political flaws and failures.
Working in formal techniques, Skolnick says, allowed him to take a dispassionate view of the president and see how the images took hold. In one set of images, he separates the president and the first lady, erasing her out of one picture and putting her in another to show how they were divided in history. Another image, of the front page of the Nov. 23, 1963, edition of The Dallas Morning News, shows the newspaper pictures, but the text is blurred.
The first person to see some of Skolnick's Kennedy images was his father, who was alive when Kennedy was killed. His reaction: "It's too soon."
At last week's opening of the exhibit, he says, he saw a mix of people: those who were drawn into the artistic techniques and those who were caught up in the emotion.
"It's like the big last era of romanticism, because romanticism is dead now," Skolnick says. "We get to romanticize Kennedy. We get to romanticize his life and his death.
"But I like that; I like that in the end. Because I can look at it scientifically — like this is our president, and he died — at the same time, I love those romantic notions about him and Jackie."
IF YOU GO
'Pick Me Up and Turn Me Round'
What: Exhibit of art work by Aaron Skolnick using iconic images of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
When: Through Dec. 21. Gallery hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wed.-Sat.
Where: Institute 193, 193 N. Limestone.
Learn more: Institute193.org
Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: Copiousnotes.bloginky.com.