The first thing you come upon at “Love Superior, a Death Supreme”—the exhibition by sisters Caitlin and Nicole Duennebier (“Nicole is three years older than me and when we were little she was like my protector,” Caitin says) at Simmons University’s Trustman Art Gallery in Boston from Feb. 9 to March 18, 2019—is the bloody, rotting cartoony corpse of what appears to be a yeti or a Muppet monster.
What’s left of the purple-furred creature is scattered across a bed of green mossy fabric on the floor. There are limbs with bones sticking out, a blue face with red (yarn) blood pouring out the neck, organs (soft sculptures) sprawled inside a (wood) ribcage. Black flies hover above.
“I love it as being just a thing that’s come upon,” Nicole says of “Rebirth of Maurice,” the sisters’ title for the sculpture. “I like when you’re walking in the woods when you come upon something that doesn’t make any sense.”
“We lived near woods growing up” in East Hampton, Connecticut, Caitlin says.
Nicole studied at Maine College of Art in Portland. Caitlin studied photography at MassArt in Boston. Nicole moved to Boston—into Caitlin’s apartment—when Caitlin moved to London for a while and then came back. Nicole now resides in Malden and Caitlin in Watertown.
“Love Superior, a Death Supreme” features collaborations as well as artworks they produced individually—Caitlin’s cartoony paintings of people and creatures; Nicole’s Dutch-old-master-style still-lifes and landscapes.
Nicole describes her work as “an old Dutch person.”
“It’s old Dutch abstract paintings,” Caitlin says. “Mine is more simplistic. I tend to only work in black and white. Characters and narratives are part of my work. Dark humor and strangeness I think is part of both of our work.”
“I think there’s some wish fulfillment too,” Nicole says of her sister’s art. “There’s always this big beefy lady looking over the shoulder of this guy and she’s like, ‘Hey!’”
“A lot of sassy women,” Caitlin acknowledges. Their mom “was a big influence in our lives, especially my life. You don’t need to take shit from anybody.”
Together their art takes on a sardonic humor and features powerful women, ghosts, monsters, death and decay. “We always made these narrative as we grew up, weird little stories that made us laugh,” Caitlin says. “This is continuing that into adulthood.”
For example, “Hello Hell” is a wooden coffin filled with a diorama of black and white drawings of giant topless women menacing hapless souls in a cave.
“My personal hell,” Caitlin says.
“The coffin is perfectly Caitlin shaped,” Nicole notes.
“It wouldn’t fit Nicole,” Caitin agrees. “The large woman stomping around is an old roommate in college who used to stomp around topless and in her underwear yelling at me.” Black creatures with numerous eyes are inspired by a recurring childhood dream, Caitlin says, of a monster that would lurk at the top of the stairs to swallow her.
Collaborating can be complicated. “We oftentimes try not to work together,” Caitlin says.
“We try not to look over each other’s shoulders,” Nicole says. “We’ve found that’s not a good dynamic for us.”
But people are fascinated that they’re both artists. They get invited to do projects together. “We started doing dioramas because it seemed the easiest way. Nicole making the backgrounds and I’m making the people and we could move them around almost like dollhouses,” Caitlin says.
“You didn’t want to paint on top of my stuff,” Nicole says.
“Nicole is making these big beautiful landscapes and I’m putting my stupid little people on them,” Caitlin says. “If we’re going to be making paintings together, we have to be stepping out of our comfort zones. We have to be doing something together that we wouldn’t have done in our solo practices.”
“Sculpture’s been very important to us recently,” Nicole says.
“Neither of us had any experience with it,” Caitlin says.
“The Furies,” a series of papier-mâché heads sporting wigs from 2018, “was one of our first attempts at making sculptures together,” Nicole says. Eyes sit in bloody head-caves or ooze out of sockets.
“They were originally sitting in Montserrat [College of Art] overlooking this apocalyptic scene,” Nicole says. “I also see them as ourselves.”
“Rebirth of Maurice” (2019), Nicole says, “started off as an old man in a bath tub.”
“I wanted a rotting monster with birds tearing it apart, with guts and happy-face mushrooms,” Caitlin says.
They texted sketches back and forth. “We ended up with this sort of obliterated monster,” Caitlin says.
“I started feeling weird about building the face and feeling bad that he was decapitated,” Nicole says.
Maurice, Caitlin explains, was “my old car’s name. It was a 1990 Volvo 240. It was always falling apart.”
“I always liked that you had this big, smelly car that was named Maurice,” Nicole says. “And I think that stuck with me.”
“It definitely comes back to finding something in the woods and it’s strange and you have to ask yourself what happened here,” Caitlin says.
“We’ve always gotten through bad situations, growing up and now, making fun of it,” Caitlin says. “Making light of a bad situation that’s always been part of how we get by.”
“Negativity,” Nicole says, “is so much more interesting.”
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