“Apex Predator” sounds like the title of a summer blockbuster action flick. However, it’s actually an exhibit that explores the $20 billion illegal global wildlife trade — with humans at its apex. it’s a vicious trade that has serious and destructive repercussions for our planet’s environment and economy, and it is a subject presented in subversive beauty by Kadie Salfi.
Just as each animal’s body part becomes a precious commodity commanding hundreds to hundreds- of-thousands of dollars, Salfi chose to package each of her works in an aesthetically-pleasing manner. Clear pop art influences are evident. Salfi credits Warhol, Tuttle, Twombly and Hirst as inspirations; the former’s influence is the most apparent. Warhol himself did a series tackling endangered species.
“I wanted these to pop and be like candy,” she said. “When I started thinking about the work and the subject, I knew I wanted these pieces to be nicely packaged and framed, very easy to look at — beautiful, not gruesome — like jewels.”
The colors certainly are rich – vibrant greens, oranges, reds and turquoises – particularly the photo etchings on dyed, varnished paper that curls at the edges. The effect is an almost sculptural, hide-like treatment. Here, surprisingly, Lilly Pulitzer was an inspiration. The screen prints, on the other hand, leverage dots to create perspective based on the viewer’s distance from the work. The closer we are, the blurrier the picture; the further we are, the clearer the subject.
At first glance, one might think Salfi’s treatment further fetishizes the animals and their body parts. But there is subversion at play. Inset in each screen print is a graphite target; gold thread delicately re-attaches each harvested body part back to its animal-owner. The interplay is stark, yet moving — like a punch, then a sigh.
“Kadie has packaged a heavy and deep subject matter in an extremely aesthetic way. This juxtaposition is special in the art world,” said Kerri Macon, gallery manager at Burlington City Arts and curator of this exhibit. Macon is Oxford-educated with a specialty in cultural history with an emphasis on art-making during war and tragedy. She discovered Salfi’s art when their husbands’ work brought them both to Ithaca, New York, where Salfi is now based. Salfi’s husband is the founder of Comet Skateboards, a B corporation dedicated to manufacturing skateboards sustainably. Salfi is head of “special ops” at Comet and has created a limited edition line of skateboards inspired by “Apex Predator.”