Browsing photography blogs online, I recently came across a post by Los Angeles artist Fette Sans, who uploaded an image of a series of black-and-white photographs of men and women’s bodies. The photos were scattered about a table, each printed on a piece of white or pink paper. Underneath the image the artist typed simply: “When an inspiring studio visit reevaluates the threat of using the word ‘beauty.’”
Intriguingly, this statement comes to mind when reflecting on local artist Kadie Salfi’s current show, which is up at New Roots Charter School’s Elevator Music and Art Gallery for one more week, until the end of the month. Salfi’s Tippy Toe Dancers features ballerinas as its main subject, captured in instants of action and printed as blue cyanotypes, which is a non-toxic photographic printing process where the image can be exposed through sunlight. Each dancer stands frozen in pose with a leg stretched behind her or arms overhead. In some prints, strokes of green, pink, or orange acrylics splash across the canvases, accentuating lines of the dancer’s body and the movement therein, the curves and bends of the composition as a whole.
Whether intentional or not, there is a haunting quality to the show, which surfaces from the blue figures that extend out like shadows in their series of stretches, isolated and confined within the squares of their canvases and often slightly blurred, surrounded by a blue emulsion haze. The figures are like memories in the process of erasing themselves from one’s mind, dissolving into the bare basis of form and the uncanny qualities of beauty that remains. The dancers are thus reduced to their movements, repetitive and stiffened by ink, but it is with the poise and mechanic grace that defines ballet that leaves the show weighted with magnetic wonder.
One arresting quality about Salfi’s work and how she chose to display it is her interest in experimentation and how unafraid she is to show her works’ seams. Tippy Toe Dancers as a whole is unstructured and raw in the best of ways, designed to appear like the walls of an artist’s studio as the prints populate the tiny walk-in space that constitutes the gallery. Some of the canvases are complete, hung or propped against the wall; others are simply un-stretched canvas squares with occasional blue splotches on their borders, pinned up with clothespins. The pieces range in size, some small and some large, dancing around and about one another from one work to the next.
In this way, in the eclectic mixture of presentations and how the images work off of one another, Salfi still managed to incorporate visual movement within her curation to counter each image’s otherwise stasis. “Each week I will make changes to the space,” she wrote in her statement, “take some pieces away, add some, hang high or low to add movement to these graceful dancers.” By shifting the works and introducing new ones, it’s as if the dancers carry new life as they move about the space, as if they continue to dance and will continue to dance forever, regardless of whether we viewers see them do it or not.
What’s interesting too about the show is that based on its overall execution and fluidity, Tippy Toe Dancers ultimately appears less like an exhibition of individual prints than a thought process still in formation, prompting its viewers to look beyond the images themselves to consider what more they could represent. It’s no surprise that Salfi’s interest in ballerinas began as a gender study. During a college course she took at CalArts in the 1990s, Salfi became intrigued by the concept of semiotics and the possible hidden meanings and implications present within images, the expectations and readings they bring forth. Ballerinas are viewed as graceful, beautiful, and feminine, but there is a powerfulness and athleticism to them as well. They cannot be defined only by their fragility as much more strength lies within their wake. •
Tippy Toe Dancers will be on display at New Roots Charter School, Elevator Music and Art Gallery, 116 North Cayuga Street/ The Clinton House, until March 31.