Cultured Magazine

April/May 2015

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If the eyes really are the windows to the soul, don't tell that to Y.Z. Kami. For the painter, whose recent work is on display at Gagosian Gallery London through May 30, the act of portrait painting has as much to do with the way we remember faces around us as with the way they actually look. So while his subjects' eyes are often shut, their faces are anything but impenetrable. "There are two realities," Kami says over the phone while vacationing in southern India in the days leading up to the show, his voice as serene as the meditative portraits that he paints in oil. "One is the face itself—the truth of the face—and the other is the memory that you have inside you of the face that you've visited." Think about your favorite person, or even a captivating stranger who recently crossed your path. How do you see them? Chances are, it's not a still image, like a photograph. More than likely, it's an impression of movement, a glimpse or an essence. "It's almost always out of focus, sometimes a little bit out of focus, sometimes a lot, but never sharp," Kami says. "Memory can never be sharp." Though he works from photographs, it's this intangible likeness that he seeks to capture in his large-scale work. The human face has been an artistic obsession of Kami's since he was a child in Iran, watching his mother paint. Over the decades, his work has gradually evolved. "While I am painting there are no conscious decisions," he says. "You just flow with what's come up. You make some decisions to begin with, but the painting itself takes you." He's found a certain sense of liberation as his canvases have gradually gotten larger, the faces increasingly hazy. "With large canvases, the brush becomes much larger, your body language and your gestures are different; the body is more involved," he explains. The result is a surface that appears almost abstract up close, or shimmering from farther away. Recently, Kami has taken this same approach with another subject: hands in prayer. Like his portraits, these hands seem to glow as though lit from within. It may seem like a departure, but these paintings tap into another of his lifelong interests, the mysticism at the core of the world's major religions. Religious mysticism was the start for the abstract works that bookend the show, two rooms of monochromatic works from his "Domes" series. Calling to mind mandalas and sacred architecture, in particular, the mosaic ceilings of Byzantine churches, the paintings are made from concentric circles of black or white rectangles. In the past, Kami made similar works using cut- up bits of religious texts in various languages; now he works with pure color, but the familiar sense of the sacred remains; if even just a memory. 104 CULTURED PORTRAIT BY SUERAYA SHAHEEN, ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF GAGOSIAN GALLERY About Face With a new exhibition at Gagosian Gallery, painter Y.Z. Kami continues his lifelong obsession with the art of portraiture. BY HEATHER CORCORAN Clockwise from top: Y.Z. Kami in the studio; Kami's Daya in Profile, 2014; White Dome I, 2011-2013

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