Candy Keegan likes to paint herself sucking. Most of the paintings in the former elementary-school teacher’s current exhibition of self-portraits, titled “I, Candy,” depict the artist’s face raptly sucking on rainbow-colored lollipops, bright-red apples, and pastel-hued necklaces made of candy.

“I play around a lot with feminine power, female narrative….I embrace my own sexuality, but [the paintings] are not feminist in the traditional sense in that I don’t hate men or want to be a man,” says Keegan, a 36-year-old part-time resident of Brookland currently completing her MFA at Catholic University.

Instead, the artist claims that her paintings—on view at 9th Street NE’s Wohlfarth Galleries to Sept. 26—arise out of an interest in body image and sexuality, as well as a taste for performance acquired while participating in community theater growing up in Niagara Falls, N.Y. She says, “I start with mood. I set it up and act it out, and my husband takes the pictures.”

Keegan culls elements that she likes from the photographs, then makes a drawing based on them. Sometimes, she works quickly and finishes a painting within a month; sometimes, it takes her much longer. Whereas most of her earlier work consisted of self-portraits that she characterizes as “melancholy and introspective,” for this exhibition, Keegan wanted to play off her own name.

Citing California artist Wayne Thiebaud—best known for his paintings of cakes—as a major influence, Keegan explains that she tries to make her own flesh look stage-lit and artificially colored, like candy. And to make the show “interactive,” Keegan supplies viewers with heaps of lollipops and other candy.

While men are quick to read sexuality into the paintings, Keegan says, women are more often taken aback by her work. “Some women are less comfortable with ourselves, maybe,” she says. She is sometimes accused of being an exhibitionist, but Keegan insists that’s not what her work is about.

Amid her paintings’ harsh lighting, garish colors, and sexual overtones lurk allusions to mythology and religion. For instance, a painting featuring Keegan sucking on a candy necklace is titled Freya’s Necklace. “Freya was a goddess who exchanged sexual favors with gnomes or dwarves in return for the necklace,” Keegan explains. I, Amazon depicts Keegan shielding her face with her eyes, her left breast poking out of a red dress. Although Amazons are traditionally depicted with severed right breasts, Keegan says she decided to leave her cleavage intact. She didn’t want to be too literal, she explains.

Indeed, Keegan emphasizes that she is “not afraid to use humor in art.” Leda and the Swan shows her kissing a rubber duckie in front of a greenish wall that suggests a bathroom interior. When asked how the Greek myth, in which Zeus takes the form of a swan in order to seduce the young Leda, illuminates this work, Keegan explains that the painting is “symbolic of an inner child….The symbolism behind the myth was not part of it, to be honest. It was more about the humor.”

—Bidisha Banerjee

Keegan’s work is on view to Sept. 26 at Wohlfarth Galleries, 3418 9th Street NE. For more information, call (202) 526-8022.