Karen Silvestro remembers playing with paper dolls when she was a girl, dreaming about the perfect man. On opening night of her first major solo show at Robert Lange Studios, the artist joked about designing a husband who’s also a cowboy, or a knight in shining armor who’s also suave. “The practicality of trying to find that perfect someone is ridiculous,” she said. Silvestro’s fascination with the contrast between the idealizations of youth and the reality of adulthood has led to a thought-provoking exhibit called Paperdoll.

Married for 19 years to a guy that’s perfect for her, Silvestro became interested in the changing nature of relationships as seen through the lens of reality TV. Friends were going through difficult, dramatic divorces and young women on TV seemed to be filled with crazy expectations about finding the perfect man. Wanting to create a series of works that spoke to these false impressions and the dual nature of our exterior and interior lives, Silvestro has created a collection of 19 paintings and 15 pen-and-ink illustrations.

“I call it a woman’s gallery of bad choices,” she said of four paintings depicting a dummy (Chet, the simple-minded doormat), a weasel (Tom, the masquerading player), a snake (Dick, the storytelling cheater), and a caveman (Harry, the brutish he-man). Set against a green and blue tile background and smiling stupidly, Chet’s dull eyes speak volumes about boredom and passivity. The weasel, with his little paws and whiskers, stares past the viewer, searching for a better opportunity. Silvestro’s paintings are well executed and evidence of her technique can be seen in the pen and ink illustrations. Chet, Tom, Dick, Harry, and an unnamed wolf play poker in the pen-and-ink titled “My Luck.” The half-hidden, long-nailed player has been dealt a bad hand in more ways than one.

A native of New York, Silvestro studied illustration at the Pratt Institute and worked as an editorial illustrator. Her first teacher and mentor was Caldecott-winning children’s book author Tomie dePaola. Calling herself a “symbolic surrealist,” her work is narrative-based, and dePaola’s influence is evident in her readable paintings.

The provocative titles had viewers laughing out loud on opening night. “Raining Men, Ideals, and Options,” depicts a blue sky filled with nearly naked, buff men floating among the clouds. “Double Header, Who’s the Brains of This Operation?” depicts a naked man with a head on his head. These wink-wink titles are part of the process.

“Taken for a Ride, Ignoring All the Signs” tells the story of a woman who chooses fantasy over reality. “She’s bare-assed, totally exposed, and riding the horse barebacked,” Silvestro laughed. It’s interesting to note that real models, friends, and neighbors, all of whom came to the opening reception, were used for the paintings.

The largest piece in the exhibit, “Pride Fighters, Outshining Your Partner” (72″x48″), depicts a woman in a long blue dress staring down a peacock, positioned on a stool at eye level, with a cascading veil of green feathers. The strap of the woman’s dress hangs off her shoulder as she loosely clutches a thin, black leash. The soft feathers of the bird contrast with the sharp angles of the woman’s jawline while the vivid blue of her dress matches the peacock’s head and neck. They stare at each other, appearing to ask who is more beautiful. The pointlessness of the challenge is funny and sad.

Paperdoll is a fantasy world whose mythological creatures poke fun at our cultural hang-ups and stereotypes. At times the collection can be conceptually heavy, but overall, the provocative images pull the viewer in for a closer read. Silvestro has created a picture book for adults only, and we think her mentor would be proud.