Brandi Twilley, “Rainy Night” (2017), oil on canvas, 46 x 64 inches (all images courtesy Sargent’s Daughters)

Brandi Twilley is understandably haunted by her childhood, which included her home burning to the ground in 1999, when she was sixteen. A year ago, she had an exhibition of ten paintings of her living room, all recreated from  Polaroid photos, Internet searches, and memory, which I reviewed here.

In her second exhibition, Brandi Twilley: Where The Fire Started, at Sargent’s Daughters (July 12 – August 18, 2017), the artist returns to the subject of her ravaged house, this time her bedroom, and to library books on Picasso and Titian that she had borrowed just before the fire. One thing is clear: Twilley, who was in high school at the time, had decided to become an artist before the fire.

I don’t think it is surprising that I thought of Gaston Bachelard while I had Twilley’s work in my head. “Childhood,” he wrote, “lasts all through life. It returns to animate broad sections of adult life […].” And yet, even as Bachelard’s writings came to mind, I was struck by how at odds Twilley’s childhood circumstances seem with Bachelard’s musings. In his best-known book, The Poetics of Space, he wrote:

If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.

Brandi Twilley, “The Fire” (2017), oil on canvas, 46 x 64 inches

The house that Twilley grew up in was well on its way to the abyss by the time the fire started. And yet, it was clearly where she started dreaming of becoming an artist. And more than that, it was where she made art and studied it by borrowing books from her local library. Her bedroom was a hermetic bubble: plywood sheets covered both of the windows, one completely and the other nearly so, with only the tops of trees visible above the plywood edge. The ceiling leaked when it rained, and many of its cheap tiles had long ago fallen. Twilley slept in the bottom of a bunk bed, partially protected from the rain by the top bunk, and covered herself with a blue tarp in order to stay dry. Buckets were used to collect the rain.

There is nothing self-dramatizing in these paintings. In the pictures of her bedroom, Twilley is attentive to the warping of the cheap, prefab wallboard;  the electric blue of the plastic tarp; the wood grain of the plywood; the ceiling in decay; the stuff of hers littering the floor. Everything gets her attention. Her approach is straightforward and she does not succumb to the temptation of elaboration.

Brandi Twilley, “The Hallway” (2017), oil on canvas, 46 x 64 inches

In “Rainy Night” (2017), the artist carefully invokes surfaces, tonalities, and detritus, such as tin cans and coffee cubs. The electric blue tarp glows in the crepuscular light. Raindrops are visible as they fall unimpeded into the room. While the room did not allow Twilley to dream in peace, she dreamed anyway, as evidenced by the two art books lying on the floor, one of which has a painting from Picasso’s Blue Period on the cover. Twilley uses the bedroom as an occasion to test her painting chops: can she be true to the drab and artificial colors, to surface textures, to stains, tin, and plastic, and to the gloomy light?

The painting “Cat in the Roof” (2017), offers a partial view of the room,  glimpsing the edge of a dresser, a space heater sitting on a chair — the likely reason the fire started — and a stained wall and door. The stained surfaces look as if someone stuck her hands in grease and rubbed them onto the cream-colored door and the wavy grooves of the warped prefab wallboard. Another smear the color of dried blood descends the wall. According to the gallery press release: “A stray cat and her kittens had been living in the roof above the fireplace and had died, causing maggots to rain down into the fire.” Twilley does not go for sensationalism, so that the russet smear is the only clue as to what happened. It is more than enough. Meanwhile, an apple core stands next to a coffee cup on the edge of the dresser, near the stained mattress.

Brandi Twilley, “Cat in the Roof” (2017), oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches

The nuances of atmospheric light are impressive: Twilley wants to see what she once inhabited with a detachment that denies sentimentality, nostalgia, and even sympathy. Despite the depressing circumstances of her childhood, she recognizes that her situation did not become an overwhelming obstacle, and that she did become an artist, what she dreamed about. Any painterly move meant to play on our empathy would have struck a false note, and there is none of that in these terrific paintings. They are both tough and tender.

Along with the paintings of her bedroom and one of the fire blazing through her window, Twilley did a group of smaller works depicting the books she had that survived the fire. In these works, she placed the open book on her easel and painted what she saw. This includes smudges, masking tape, paint and pencil marks, and unidentifiable stains. In another painting from this group, she places her copy of a book on Titian next to one on Picasso: the covers are stained and the binding of one is coming undone. Twilley is committed to being true to the material state of an object, while also recognizing paint’s elasticity: it can be thin and washy, smeary or luminous.

Brandi Twilley, “The Tempest” (2017), oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches

One might view these paintings as an archive of the variety of ways paint has been applied to a surface over the past 75 years. This is what sets Twilley apart from other contemporary artists committed to observation and realism: her merging of technique with believability, the combination of which arises out of necessity. Her feelings of being haunted have not prevented her from making paintings that show no signs of inner torment. The paintings are not about her, but about something disastrous that happened to her earlier self, who had little control over her circumstances, except the desire to be an artist. Twilley did a lot to nurture that desire in extremely trying circumstances, and in the process has become a wonderful, arresting, and challenging artist, whose only agenda appears to be a commitment to some undeniable truth.

Brandi Twilley: Where The Fire Started continues at Sargent’s Daughters (179 East Broadway, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through August 18.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...