Aaron Michael Skolnick stoops to pick up a photograph of Jackie Kennedy and a piece of notebook paper covered in muddled brushstrokes — brown dabs, smears of canary and one oblong smudge of kelly green.
“I call these painting notes,” Skolnick says. “I use them when I’m tracking my color.”
He lets the notebook paper flutter to the ground and holds the photograph gingerly between his thumb and forefinger.
“And this is my original source photograph,” he says.
It’s Sunday morning, and Skolnick is hanging work for “Drawn to Bodies,” a new show at Zephyr Gallery opening Sept. 2. Behind him are just a few of his of “Jackies.” There’s one made from lipstick prints — very Dan Colen-esque — and another made from a series of deliberate charcoal hashmarks.
By the end of the day, more than 40 cover the wall, uniform in their inspiration: Jackie in her signature pink suit, starched white gloves and precisely placed pillbox hat.
Skolnick points to one of his favorites. It’s done in the gestural style of the American artist Dana Schutz — a fitting favorite given the purpose of “Drawn to Bodies.”
In an essay for Schutz’s catalog, “Dana Schutz: Paintings 2002-2005,” art historian Katy Siegel wrote that Schutz’s work speaks so vividly of its making, almost to the point of being able to retrace all requisite strokes, it becomes an “allegory for the process of making art.”
Similarly, Stuart Horodner, the curator of “Drawn to Bodies,” writes in the exhibition notes, “the participating artists have generously agreed to orient the exhibition towards process rather than product, to try to put their thinking about ‘making’ on view.’”
For that reason, in addition to Skolnick’s completed “Jackies” (which have been a five-year process), he will highlight his own process by hanging his painting notes, original sketches, the source photograph and — alone on the furthermost wall in the gallery — a version of Kennedy’s iconic suit sewn from pink-painted canvas.
It’s an unorthodox move. Most gallery and museum visitors see only complete products, but Horodner recognizes opportunity in presenting context alongside final creations.
“Drawn to Bodies” also features the work of regional artists Martin Beck, Jay Bolotin, Georgia Henkel and Lina Tharsing. Horodner says he grew interested in their representational art after moving from Atlanta to become director of the University of Kentucky Art Museum in 2014.
When I first heard the title of this exhibition, I expected a basic study of figure. But Horodner doesn’t do basic (if you need recent proof, check out his 2015 show of Wayne Kostenbaum’s paintings, or the UK Art Museum’s current Louis Zoellar Bickett exhibition).
Instead, with “Drawn to Bodies,” he has curated a collection that engages viewers in two main ways.
The first is, obviously, leading them through the process of the artists’ creations. Horodner says the question that inspired the exhibition was, “What prompts the work?”
“That wrestling with where images come from and how they get transformed, a lot of the time artists don’t show that,” Horodner says. “And in a gallery like this, under the notion of a ‘project series,’ we could actually reveal some of that working methodology rather than just finished work.”
He points to a stack of pieces by Bolotin, a Cincinnati-based interdisciplinary artist. There’s one propped against the wall titled “Rats/Chairs/Clock Parts,” and it features just that. The page is covered in detailed studies of chair legs, cogs, whiskers and rat haunches.
Bolotin’s installation is perhaps the most linear representation of the progress from inspiration to final product.
Lexington artist Georgia Henkel is more understated in her exploration of artistic development.
Horodner says the base of Henkel’s pieces are shredded bed linens from her former marriage. On top of that, she plays with stains made from various berries and lets their shapes inform where she’ll take the work.
The exhibition’s second aim is a little more subtle. In his organization of the art, Horodner seeks to examine and juxtapose the plethora of meanings associated with the term “figure” and encourages viewers to do the same.
There are pieces — like Beck’s lush pastels — that lean toward more traditional figure studies. But then there’s Tharsing, a Lexington-based artist whose work explores nature and artifice. Many of her pieces center on a single charred tree, blackened but emanating light.
“Think about that tree as a study of figure, in a sense,” Horodner says.
Meanwhile, Skolnick’s “Jackies” explore his subject’s status as a public figure.
The brilliance of “Drawn to Bodies” is that the study of figure isn’t restricted to what is on the wall.
Horodner says one of his goals for the exhibition was to “make this feel like a studio,” meaning that perhaps in the context of “Drawn to Bodies,” visitors are privy to and part of the creation process, making them figures to be studied in their own right.
“Drawn to Bodies” opens Sept. 2 at Zephyr Gallery. It runs through Oct. 22. More information is available here.