The Polish-born, New York-based Joanna Malinowska’s third solo exhibition at Canada takes its name from Shakespeare—”A Hawk from a Handsaw” originates in Hamlet, wherein the Prince of Denmark declares he’s “but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.” Malinowska’s work often focuses on the intersections between cultural anthropology and modern art, examining the ways in which the latter takes from the traditions and objects catalogued by the former; “A Hawk From a Handsaw” was not an inquiry into the nature of madness, but an examination, both art historical and anthropological, of a pioneer frontier aesthetic.
For the show, the artist actually shipped in six tons of dirt from the Yukon (north-north-west). It lies in the center of the gallery floor, ready to be panned for gold (an action performed by Malinowska periodically at the gallery). Around it are a number of small and medium-size sculptures, a wall hanging and a much larger statue, whose size overpowers even the tonnage of earth. A rough-hewn, nearly 16-foot-tall wood-and-papier-mâché sculpture of a standing bear, its hat only barely clearing the ceiling, Falsely Humble (2013, made with Michael Crockford) is a kitschy piece of folk art in the likeness of Smokey Bear, forest-fire prevention mascot of the United States Forest Service. The sculpture, simultaneously ridiculous and terrifying, manages to exceed said kitsch, however, via the rawness of its materials and its size. It brings to mind Boli (2009), Malinowska’s take on a ritual object from Bamana (a 17th-century West African empire) traditionally made from blood, cattle dung and kola nut. Her 13-foot-tall boli incorporates plaster and clay, but also scraps of a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics, water from the Bering Strait and a sweater once owned by Bolivian president Evo Morales. One imagines that, had Malinowska gone the Boli route, creating a bear golem out of philosophy texts and the clothes of politicians, Falsely Humble would not have the elemental, visceral feel that it does.
Under the bear’s gaze and set around the dirt is Bootleg Noguchi (set from Appalachian Spring), 2013, Malinowska’s quirky interpretation of parts of Isamu Noguchi’s set for “Appalachian Spring,” the 1944 ballet composed by Aaron Copland and choreographed by Martha Graham. The original set was an elegant reduction of Appalachian architecture and furniture to minimal, polished components; a few wooden beams traced the outline of a barn, while bronze sculptures evoked the silhouettes of rocking chairs. Malinowska’s version returns Noguchi’s translation of Appalachia to its folksy origins. A canvas painted to resemble clapboard siding is propped up by an actual tree branch, instead of Noguchi’s original wooden frame, while the bronze chairs are transmuted back into wood and lacquered black.
There is a detour from the already conceptually loose frontier evoked by Malinowska (Yukon and Appalachia being on opposite sides of the continent) through a sort of Cold War-era kitsch. In the room’s corner, facing away from the center, America (2012-13) is a video embedded in a facsimile of a ’60s television set built by Malinowska. Perhaps a winking nod to the artist’s Polish heritage and generalizations about the Soviet bloc made in the U.S. during that era, the work features a reading of Allen Ginsberg’s eponymous poem by conductor Semyon Vekshtein, in his strong Russian accent and without much emotion. America has an unsubtle humor, the conductor playing the stone-faced Soviet bureaucrat and saying lines like, “The Russia wants to eat us alive.” Like the Noguchi piece, it’s another moment of strange and cartoonish encounter enacted by Malinowska, a significant piece of cultural history confronted by a caricature of its objects.