Gagosian Gallery Gives Artist Y.Z. Kami His First Paris Solo Show

The first solo exhibition in Paris by the Iranian-born, New-York-based artist Y.Z. Kami opens on March 16th at the Gagosian gallery there. The exhibition, titled “Geometry of Light,” runs through May 5.

Kami is perhaps best known for his portraits of introspective subjects whose faces slide in and out of focus: large-scale figurative paintings of nameless individuals, some known to the artist, others complete strangers.

“Y.Z. Kami’s large-scale portraits recreate the visceral experience of a face-to-face encounter,” said the Gagosian Gallery, announcing the exhibition.

Gagosian said the portraits suggested “a connection to the presence of each subject. Through a uniform haze, or sfumato, he depicts family, friends and anonymous strangers with eyes open or closed, gazing forward or looking down.”

“Rendered in matte oil paint on linen, the portraits recall Byzantine frescoes or Fayum funerary portraits, continuing the art historical quest to locate the unknown and the infinite within material form,” the Gagosian added.

Kami was born Kamran Youssefzadeh in Tehran in 1956, and grew up in Iran. His first encounter with art came at an early age: his mother was a portrait painter, so he too started painting portraits as a child. Traveling frequently around Iran with his family, he was impressed by old architecture and the desert landscape, both of which would subsequently influence his work.

After a year at the University of California in Berkeley (1975-76), he moved to Paris where he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne (1976-81) before settling in New York.

Kami found fame in the 1990s with delicate portraits of young men who had died of AIDS. The artist also gained attention for his series “To Jerusalem” (2006), which depicts five religious clerics of different faiths (a Catholic cardinal, an Eastern Orthodox bishop, Sephardic and Ashkenazi rabbis, and a Sunni imam) who came together in the Holy City in 2005 to protest against a gay pride march due to be held there.

“There is a meditative element to any act of painting,” said Kami in a Gagosian gallery Q&A during a 2015 solo exhibition. “When you’re in front of a canvas, a blank piece of paper, or a surface, there is something at work in your soul, brain, mind.”

In a review of that show, The Guardian wrote: “Portraits make people present; that, at least. is the usual idea.”

“But the works of the Iranian painter Y.Z. Kami offer a different interpretation of presence than most,” said The Guardian. “His sitters appear in a pensive condition, eyes shut to the visible world, as if they were seeing some inner world both within and beyond . . . The closer you get to these gigantic people, the more they seem to withdraw.”

Kami’s “Endless Prayers” series, mixed-media collages on paper inspired by architectural designs, consist of Sufi poetic writings, Arabic prayers and mystical Hebrew texts that are cut into rectangular fragments and pasted into mandala formations, their spiraling patterns echoing the repetitive nature of prayer.

Kami’s Dome paintings grew out of his “Endless Prayers” series. “Composed of nested concentric rings of brick-like lozenges that evoke the domes and cupolas of churches, mosques, and temples, these panels are dilating and contracting mandalas for the contemplation of unfettered minds,” wrote the prominent American art historian and writer Robert Storr.

Paintings of hands are also part of Kami’s body of work. Engaged in prayer or centered on the chest, they communicate an act of spirituality. “When the hand is at rest on the heart, it is a gesture of humility, of love,” noted Kami. “And then hands in prayer are a more direct image of devotion . . . With hands in prayer, there is faith. And it’s a very universal image associated with many faiths: Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, etc.”

As Fereshteh Daftari, a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art, said: “A Kami portrait is rarely about the sitter . . . Kami’s paintings create a human kinship, turning solitary individuals into a fraternity, a tribe, the community of mankind.”

Kami’s work has been collected and exhibited by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. It is also in the collections of the British Museum.

He has had solo institutional exhibitions at the 52nd Venice Biennale (2007); at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Smithsonian Institution) in Washington D.C. (2008); at the Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art in London (2008); and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2016-17).

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