Magdalena Jarkowiec’s Giant Mutant Dolls

The dancer, choreographer, costume maker and visual artist makes soft, fabric sculptures that are at the intersection of a diffuse, disorganized, yet playful experience of the self


I first encountered one of Magdalena Jarkowiec’s giant mutant dolls while taking a routine hike on Austin’s Barton Creek Greenbelt Trail with a friend. About a mile towards town from the Seismic Wall, we were greeted by a plush lime green alien figure suspended in the trees. We were wonderstruck, asking ourselves “Who put that there, and why?!”

I would only learn years later that multimedia Austin-based artist Jarkowiec had been in a phase of installing her work outdoors. Her husband, a rock climber, had helped install the particular eye-catching lime green alien along the rugged trail.

Magdalena Jarkowiec, “Tree Legs,” 2012. Photo courtesy the artist

Now, Jarkowiec’s otherworldly figures take center stage in “Unusual Kinships,” a solo exhibition at Austin’s Dimension Gallery opening April 11. The exhibition will feature humanoid sculptural forms with a myriad of fabrics used as skin. There is also a small room evocative of a dollhouse that will contain an ancient cot, a metal reindeer frame with a soft sculpture inhabitant, clothing items such as matching green wool panties and tank top — plus more.

Jarkowiec’s fantastical beings — which she casually named “giant mutant dolls” early on in her practice — mimic the human form yet often feature one missing, oversized or partially-stuffed body part. Clad in loud, vivid fabrics the figures have a playful temper.

Jarkowiec grew up in a Polish immigrant family in Baltimore and went to a performing arts high school where she studied dance. Though her artistic development remained centered in physical movement (she has danced professionally for internationally recognized choreographers, most notably Alonzo King in San Francisco), much of Jarkowiec’s visual arts inspiration came from by her seamstress grandmother. Having recently performed in Netta Yerushamly’s “Paramodernities” in New York, Jarkowiec says she’s ready to seriously pursue her sculpture career, with plans to obtain her master’s degree in studio art in the near future.

Jarkowiec’s giant mutant dolls emerged organically when the dancer, choreographer, costume maker, and mother of a two-year-old, just started experimenting one day and didn’t stop.

“The whole soft sculpture thing, I wasn’t like, ‘Oh I want to be an artist.’ I just started making these things and then it probably took like 10 years for me to realize, ‘I’m kind of an artist now — that’s kind of what I’m doing,’” says Jarkowiec.

Magdalena Jarkowie’s soft sculpture in her Austin studio. Photo by Sarah Annie Navarrete.

Her solo show touches on themes Jarkowiec often considers in her art: what it means to inhabit a form, to be a body, and to navigate domestic spaces. She also uses the exhibitions as a chance to explore the experience of feeling a disconnect between the mind and body.

“I’m always depicting the body in some way. And I’m always depicting it in some strange, distorted way, because for me, the way that your body inhabits your mind is not straightforward; it’s divorced from its appearance,” says Jarkowiec. “It’s like making things that are at that intersection of your diffuse, disorganized, experience of yourself and then you as a cultural object.”

To play with Dimension Gallery’s modest space, Jarkowiec decided to insert a small room adorned with red carpeted walls within the gallery, creating a similar experience to that of looking in a dollhouse; spectators can gaze into the familiar domestic space, but they cannot access it.

“This way, you’re not threading your way between a bunch of pedestals and between a bunch of people,” says Jarkowiec. “Most of the work you have to peer in on.”

Jarkowiec’s use of gaudy fabrics and the representation of genitalia in her sculpture gives her work a distinct look. Her tongue-and-cheek use of boobs, vulvas, penises and testicles rendered in unnatural colors, represent the intersection of the everyday and the bewildering.

“I use humor a lot in the sense of levity. I think of it as ‘the smirk’… It’s my way of engaging people,” says Jarkowiec. “There’s this recognition that happens with humor, where it’s some acknowledgement of our inner lives, some public acknowledgment of the world inside of us.”


Jarkowiec built one sculpture for her upcoming solo exhibition using the armature of a reindeer-shaped decorative statue. Photo by Sarah Annie Navarrete.

She also hopes to shed light on our intimacy with everyday objects and the way we navigate objects and spaces in our homes. She recalls a time she visited an old neighbor in the apartment complex where she grew up. As Jarkoweic put on her shoes in the neighbor’s hallway, she instinctively looked up for the clock that was in her home growing up, but because it was her neighbor’s apartment, there was no clock.

“With the objects in this show, that’s what I’m trying to represent — that intimacy between you and everyday objects, where they are in your brain, how they’re almost, to me, the same as your limbs,” says Jarkowiec.

She often includes bright hairs on the limbs of her sculptural forms, an added textural layer that celebrates the body’s imperfections. Seams also offer focal points for the eye. Fabric as a medium tends to evoke feelings of the familiar, the comfortable and the domestic. For Jarkowiec, it also has the ability to offer more complexity and depth than other mediums.

“I do like how tactile it is,” says Jarkowiec. “You know [that feeling] when you look at a painting and then it disappoints you when you get too close to it; I feel like fabric saves you from that. It gives you something interesting to look at even really close up.”

Jarkowiec points out the inherent sexism of an art world that still too often regards fabric as an artistic medium that’s intrinsically female.

“I do think there aren’t that many women working in (large-scale three-dimensional art). We are definitely really outnumbered by men,” says Jarkowiec. “I just think it’s kind of a bummer that using fabric relegates you to the female, mostly because I think that can be a way for people to feel like it’s not serious or to be a little dismissive of it.”

An ironing board serves as the base of one of Jarkowiec’s humanoid fabric sculptures. Photo by Sarah Annie Navarrete.

Seeking a reprieve from the seriousness of the dance world, the possibility of doing more politically-relevant work is ultimately uninteresting to Jarkowiec. It is clear through the universality of Jarkowiec’s topics, and her use of humor, that she is committed to a level of accessibility.

“I feel a kinship with my work,” she says. “The [giant mutant dolls] feel like my friends, and I think other people have that experience, too.”

“Unusual Kinships” opens April 11 at Dimension Gallery and continues through May 18.

Mary K. Cantrell
Mary K. Cantrell
Mary K. Cantrell is an Austin-based freelance writer and journalist. She has journalism and women’s and gender studies degrees from the University of Texas and a fondness for covering local arts stories.

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