Lisa Marie Thalhammer tries not to think too much about what her art means before she creates it. “It all kind of comes together while you’re making it,” she says. “A lot of it’s very spontaneous.”

Spontaneous or not, the paintings in the 24-year-old artist’s current show at Adams Morgan’s Studio One Eight, “Fully Loaded: New Works by Lisa Marie Thalhammer,” certainly ended up meaning plenty. The portraits of the artist’s female friends—some half-nude, all holding guns—challenge the role of the viewer and address the classic art-history-course idea of the male gaze, says Thalhammer, who graduated in 2003 from the University of Kansas, where she studied painting, women’s studies, and art history. She explored similar themes in a previous performance piece in which she bathed in a tub full of oiled noodles under a sign that read, “Stop Looking.”

The idea for “Fully Loaded” hit Thalhammer one afternoon when her friend Tone Rawlings was hanging out at her home at the 52 O Street Studios. She asked Rawlings if she could paint a portrait of her holding a toy gun left over from her roommate’s Halloween costume. Thalhammer helped her friend come up with the pose for the portrait—but, she says, it was Rawlings’ idea to remove her shirt. Subsequent portrait subjects followed suit, creating an “army of women” who are largely topless. “It was never required that all of these women…take their shirts off,” Thalhammer says. “It just happened.”

As for Rawlings, she “wasn’t bothered at all” by either the nudity or the firearm. “I’m a pacifist,” says Rawlings, “but I knew where [Thalhammer] was going with the guns.”

Good thing, too: Though shirts were optional, the weapons were nonnegotiable. “The gun…kind of takes on this role of an accessory,” says Thalhammer. “You have these really strong, powerful women….Why do they need to have this firearm to make the piece whole?”

Apparently, that question has several answers. The gun, Thalhammer says, is a symbol of American culture. It’s a symbol of power. Of course, it has phallic associations. And—oh, yeah—it also represents a false sense of security.

All of this penislike pseudo-protection is wrapped up in pretty packaging: colorful images of young women, some embellished with gold leaf, with skin tones rendered in layers of metallic glaze. Thalhammer has an explanation for the works’ attractiveness, too: “You have this very heavy content within something that’s very visually appealing, and that’s kind of the trick,” she says. “For me, aesthetics…is really just a tool towards thought.”

Thalhammer plans to take on other projects—perhaps revisiting the truck stop her father owns outside St. Louis for inspiration—but she’s not done building her army yet. “I stopped making them for…three months, and then I started making them again,” she says. “Now I kind of want to make some more.”

With that in mind, Thalhammer is busy acquiring new props for her future subjects. “I ordered toy guns from the Internet,” she says. “I got some new really cool ones, bigger ones…that they’ll be able to pick from.”—Rebecca Corvino

“Fully Loaded” is on view by appointment to Sunday, Jan. 8, 2006, with an open house from noon to 6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 26, at Studio One Eight, 2452 18th St. NW. For more information, call (703) 395-1932.