New York

Claudia and Julia Müller

Maccarone | 630 Greenwich Street

In their first New York show, Swiss sisters Claudia and Julia Müller presented three series of ink drawings, an animated video, and two unassuming sculptures (all works 2002) that focus on the complex negotiation of the individual with the constructs that simultaneously facilitate and inhibit self-realization: culture and, more intimately, family. To make the drawings, the Müllers projected images clipped from magazines and newspapers onto paper and traced them in a faux-naive style, isolating the figures in their camera-induced attitudes: shyness, bravado, calculated modesty. Two series here show adults wearing masks and children dressed in costumes that include the readily identifiable trappings of Native Americans and Hasidim. The cultural categories that the Müllers invoke are emptied of significance, as the authentic individuals that would animate them and give them meaning have been subtracted from the equation, replaced by pretenders. The third series on view, painted enlargements of menus from European restaurants that serve American fare, documents cultural bankruptcy of a higher order: One menu points out that Americans traveling deep into the Old World will find nineteen varieties of American-style pizza. The disparate subjects of these series are given the same careful attention and are painted in the same pale sienna on the same size paper (forty-eight by thirty-eight inches), which produces an intriguing leveling effect; indeed, seen en masse, the works seem to blur together, each fading in the face of the homogeneity of its own series and the overall group.

A simple digital film in the upstairs gallery, a kind of slide show composed of successive versions of a single scene, showed a family whose members at intervals fade and are seamlessly replaced: The black daughter morphs into a white son; the dog in the father’s arms becomes a baby, whose Caucasian features soon become Asian. The sleek mechanics of this looped digital projection contradict the homeyness of the narrative, which smacks of a Sesame Street lesson in colorblind togetherness—though the relentless replacement of the vapidly smiling characters feels increasingly sinister, as each carefully delineated individual seems absent rather than present, merely a sign for an ethnic or cultural category.

Just as the individuals in the drawings have been liberated from the situational happenstance of the snapshot only to be subsumed within the equalizing serial form, the family members in the video are granted individual identities within the group by virtue of their cultural difference, but the random distribution of generic ethnic attributes also has the effect of depersonalizing them altogether. Further, the distancing effect of the drawings’ mechanical processes of projection and tracing compound that of the camera behind the original image while echoing the barrier of the costume, definitively denying the subject any degree of spiritual existence. And in the film the scheduled, automated replacement of family members posits the family unit as a template rather than a unique community. (Along these lines, it is significant that neither Müller seems to have any interest in distinguishing herself from her sister; in transcribed interviews, as in drawing style, they speak as one.) Yet the artists’ efforts to locate the individual within the category are clearly earnest, and ultimately their work is profoundly—if unsentimentally—humanist, sensitive to the plight of both the individual striving for self-definition and the group struggling to retain its coherence.

Nell McClister