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Caitlin and Nicole Duennebier’s art is like a game of ‘let’s pretend’ with plenty of elbow grease

Caitlin and Nicole Duennebier at Simmons University’s Trustman Art Gallery.
Caitlin and Nicole Duennebier at Simmons University’s Trustman Art Gallery.(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

MALDEN — Early in February, a big, hairy monster lay on the floor of artist Nicole Duennebier’s kitchen. His head was detached from his body. His rib cage was exposed; his guts spilled out.

“This is Maurice,” the artist said. The lanky ogre was almost ready to be moved to Simmons University’s Trustman Art Gallery, where it would be the centerpiece of “Love Superior, a Death Supreme: Caitlin & Nicole Duennebier,” on view through March 18.

“He’ll be rotting, and there will be moss and dead leaves and mushrooms, and his limbs will be chopped up as if something came in and obliterated him,” said Caitlin, Nicole’s sister.

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“When we were little, we were always making weird little stories and making each other laugh,” said Caitlin. “That has come into the work.”

The two artists have collaborated since 2014, when Caitlin returned to Boston after a five-year stint in London. “We do a good job talking to each other about what we want to do,” said Nicole. “We can go to each other and ask, ‘What’s missing?’ ”

Their collaborations are on a separate track from their own careers. Caitlin, 31, makes spare, cartoony paintings, drawings, and, lately, ceramics depicting vexed, vicious, and long-suffering people. Nicole, 35, makes lush, glistening paintings akin to 17th-century Dutch still lifes. Like those old master works, her paintings lure viewers in with sumptuousness, and then ambush them with death and decay.

Stylistically, the sisters couldn’t be more different, but their pieces share a foreboding edge.

“Love Superior, a Death Supreme” features pieces by each artist and several collaborative works. It’s the first show at the gallery that interim gallery director Helen Popinchalk has spearheaded.

“When I got the position, I knew right away who I wanted to start with,” Popinchalk said. “What their work does sums up what I want to do with the gallery: talented young artists making broad-ranging work — sculptural, classical, illustration — that will inspire our students. And the way their work comes together! It shouldn’t work, but it does.”

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The sisters made new large-scale paintings for the show, including “The Dead and Dying on Caviar Mountain” a plague scene. Caitlin’s dour figures, mostly nude except for their tiny black shoes, wander along the foothills of Nicole’s glossy mountain. Higher up, bubbly creatures Nicole calls “symbiotic llamas” feed on caviar. Many of Caitlin’s people have turned green, died, and been tossed to the mountain’s base. Others guzzle healing elixirs.

“My characters are dealing with everyday life and work,” Caitlin said, pointing to an unhappy duo at one end of the painting. “This person is losing it. The other is, ‘What is it?!’ ”

The droll, sparely drawn characters pop against Nicole’s resplendent mountain. When the Duennebiers started painting together, Caitlin’s figures were more shaded and painterly.

“The first painting we did together, there was push and pull, and we were arguing a lot,” Caitlin said. “The newer paintings, it’s like, let’s drop it and do whatever the hell we want.”

The sisters grew up in an artistic family in Easthampton, Conn. Their father, a musician, taught Caitlin how to develop photographs in their basement darkroom. Their mother is a painter.

“We grew up running around the woods, and we were close until Nicole became a teenager and we clashed,” said Caitlin. But she loved visiting her older sister at Maine College of Art and landed in art school herself, at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Both artists have day jobs — Nicole is an office manager at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, and Caitlin an assistant preparator at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

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Their process sounds like a game of “let’s pretend” with plenty of elbow grease. “We brainstorm over a long period of time and assign each other what we’ll work on, then we work separately,” said Nicole.

Collaborating has prodded the artists in new directions. “We didn’t do sculptures until we worked together,” said Caitlin. That led her to explore ceramics, and Nicole started building clay models to better convey three dimensions in her paintings.

Together, they’ve gone beyond clay. They built a wooden casket to exactly fit Caitlin’s proportions, and put a hellscape diorama inside (“Hello Hell”). Four oversize heads, called “The Furies,” involve papier-mâché and lights.

Then there’s Maurice (actual title, “Rebirth of Maurice”), made of fabric and papier-mâché.

“We’re still getting this together. We only decided the teeth this morning,” said Nicole. “Caitlin said if we make the teeth stumpy, it means he’s an herbivore.”

The sisters had settled in the living room. Maurice was splayed in the kitchen behind Nicole. “At first I thought he was a grotesque monster, but as I worked, I fell in love with him,” she said, “and I didn’t want to give him big teeth.”

She doesn’t often depict figures. She didn’t anticipate becoming attached.

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Caitlin has a cooler, more sardonic relationship with her characters. Many of the women she paints are severe and, like all the people in her work, barely dressed. They have a model.

“I had an old roommate who was really terrible,” she said. “She would walk around topless and yell at you.”

Their art is still like the stories they made up when they were little: No parameters, just fun.

“We can make something super crazy that nobody would buy,” said Caitlin. “I have friends who had jobs, and then went into art full time. They have to make work they want to sell.”

“They have to find an audience,” said Nicole. “Our audience is each other.”

Detail of a work by Caitlin and Nicole Duennebier.
Detail of a work by Caitlin and Nicole Duennebier. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

LOVE SUPERIOR, A DEATH SUPREME: CAITLIN & NICOLE DUENNEBIER

At Trustman Art Gallery, Simmons University, 300 The Fenway, through March 18.

617-521-2268, www2.simmons.edu/trustman


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.