Brandi Twilley, Smoking, 2014, Oil on canvas, 14 x 11 inches (all images courtesy the artist and Lord Ludd)

PHILADELPHIA – Shortly after my mother separated from my father, I remember her watching the film Pretty Woman (1990). At the time she seemed obsessed with the story of a prostitute rescued by a wealthy New Yorker; it appealed to her insecurities. Likewise, one can easily imagine a young girl being drawn into the world of Julia Roberts’s Vivian, as she sheds her high-risk life as a prostitute for one of privilege and security in the hands of Richard Gere’s corporate raider. But these polished storylines don’t invite guests. That’s the problem. They shut out rather than let in.

The paintings in Brandi Twilley’s current exhibition, Imaginary Friend, at Lord Ludd depict young women, many partially or fully naked, their faces sometimes obscured by clothing or hair. Growing up in Oklahoma, Twilley’s aesthetic developed alongside the standards of beauty and gender roles established in mainstream movies like Pretty Woman, which confront young women with Hollywood fictions to which they can never measure up.

In “Smoking” (2014), the first work in the show, a woman dressed in fishnet stockings, high heels, and a bustier, smokes and talks on the phone. The painting, which looks like a drawing on dot-matrix printer paper mounted on a black background, has a smooth, high-gloss surface, an effect Twilley achieved by sanding the canvas.

Installation view of “Imaginary Friend” (2017) at Lord Ludd, Philadelphia

“Smoking” as well as six other paintings in this series, shown on the opposite side of the gallery, are based on Twilley’s memories of drawings she had done as a child. Both the original drawings and those in Imaginary Friend were inspired by her experiences as a young girl watching films like Pretty Woman and Frankenhooker (1990), another film in which the main character is an idealized prostitute.

None of Twilley’s original drawings survive. As Lord Ludd co-director Gideon Barnett explained, she destroyed some of her drawings after encountering work by Pablo Picasso: he was the real artist, not her.

The emotional gravity of Imaginary Friend intensifies in larger works, such as “Summer Night” (2016). The subject’s face is covered, but her naked body is partially exposed. The young woman in “Summer Night” and many of these paintings look dehumanized, like generic bodies on display. By directing the viewers’ gaze towards the woman’s body and hiding her face Twilley wants us to see this nude as among the details of the room, along with a phone off the hook, drink containers teetering on the old couch, and a dirty ashtray nearly tipped over onto the floor. Twilley has inscribed the woman’s body and the room she’s in with the same sense of apathy; the subjects in her paintings appear to be cut off from any sense of purpose.

Brandi Twilley, Napping by the AC, 2016, oil on canvas, 60 x 84 inches

Many of Twilley’s paintings also display a “double-consciousness” that derives, in part, from the difficult, yet fruitful tension between her formal training as a painter and her working class childhood. “Napping by the AC” (2016) expresses this tension. Like the woman in “Summer Night,” the subject’s face is covered, but she’s wearing underwear, exposing only her breasts. The blanket or shirt over her face appears to be suffocating her, as if her whole identity is being stripping away. The crumpled McDonald’s wrappers, the cat cleaning its ass, and the humorously oversized roaches crawling up the canvas suggest an overall lack of cleanliness.

Yet Twilley also places “Napping by the AC” in dialogue with traditional nudes like Giorgione’s “Sleeping Venus” (1510) and Édouard Manet’s “Olympia” (1863). In Giorgione’s work, a peacefully sleeping nude reclines in an idealized rural landscape, seeming to invite the viewer into a fantasy. Manet’s later work depicts a nude prostitute looking confidently at the viewer. Twilley’s painting, in contrast, portrays a faceless nude splayed on a couch among the clutter of her dilapidated home in late-20th-century America. It’s nothing close to fantasy.

Installation view of “Imaginary Friend” (2017) at Lord Ludd, Philadelphia

It dawned on me halfway through the exhibition that the faces of Twilley’s subjects are only visible when the woman is clothed. In “TV” (2015), a young woman, her face expressionless, sits across from a clunky, old-fashioned television set, her crotch almost exposed in a miniskirt. The rendering of the rabbit-ear antenna and the scaly texture of the green paint draw attention to the surface of the canvas rather than the woman. She seems barely there. “On the Telephone” (2015) has a similar feel, except here Twilley achieves the effect by contrasting bright yellow and black paint near the top of the canvas with the gray, sketch-like image of the woman on the phone.

Twilley, who was eight years old when Pretty Woman was released, creates an atmosphere in which the real world becomes the phantom, while the fantasy strives to become real. As an adult, she knows the danger of these Hollywood fantasies and the reality of dehumanization women face every day.

Imaginary Friend continues at Lord Ludd (306 Market Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through February 11.

Stan Mir is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in The Asian American Literary Review, Jacket2, Seedings, and The Tiny. He has published two books of poems, Song & Glass (Subito, 2010) and The...