PRINT March 1996


THE LATEST INSTALLATION by Iranian-born artist Y. Z. Kami centers on a wall of portraits—18 faces of anonymous young men with melancholy eyes and full, unsmiling lips, all painted in light earth-tones on linen. On seeing a photograph of this ensemble, a friend asked if these were memorials for people who had died of AIDS. They are not. As far as I’m aware the majority of Kami’s subjects are alive and well (though some of them are in jail). But the question is not entirely off the mark. My first thought on seeing this wall of paintings (which bears some distant relation to a Byzantine iconostasis) was that it would make a perfect illustration for the work of the great Alexandrian poet C. P. Cavafy. I was thinking in particular of his elegies for beautiful young men who have died, or grown old, or simply moved away—poems of infinite regret and frank eroticism that also manage to evoke more than 2,000 years of history and seem to exist simultaneously in the early 20th century and the 2nd century B.C.

Kami’s portraits share something of this time-traveling quality as well as the atmosphere of decadent, orientalized Hellenism that characterizes Cavafy’s work. Indeed, they allude directly to the art of Alexandrian Egypt, specifically to the funerary portraits discovered in the oasis of Fayyum, which were made to be placed directly over the mummified faces of the dead. Ancestors of the Byzantine icon, the Fayyum portraits were at first naturalistic in style, but grew steadily more abstract and hieratic. Even in their earliest phase there is an element of idealization and a peculiar intensity to the eyes. Much the same can be said of Kami’s portraits, which strike a delicate balance between individuation and idealization. All of them are based on photographs, but they are not generally photographs of people he knows well. They are friends of friends or chance acquaintances, and some are even culled from newspapers (including one of a young man condemned to death for murder). The subjects are sharply differentiated, but Kami feels free to alter their features to fit his overall conception, and they share a look of generic sadness. They are aspects of an ideal, yet they avoid sentimentality, in part because of the historical context in which he sets them.

The portrait wall is flanked by very large, black and white photographic studies of architectural details. The architecture is Persian and medieval. The details Kami has chosen do not represent the most obviously picturesque or beautiful aspects of this architecture so much as its texture; there is a sense of antiquity, almost of weariness, in these masses of eroded brickwork. These images of walls, windows, and conical cupolas have been computer manipulated and divided into a grid, then each segment of the grid has been individually enlarged, so that, in the final composite image reproduced on canvas, there are many variations of definition and contrast. This lends the whole installation an air of ambiguity and paradox: the portraits imitate photographs, the photographic pieces tend toward the abstract and the painterly. Despite this, anyone with a passing knowledge of Islamic architecture can recognize at least two of the structures involved, and both are funerary monuments: the mysterious tomb-tower of Gunbad-i-Qabus, and the vast mausoleum of Sanjar, Seljuk Sultan of Merv (a great patron of the arts and lover of young men). It is interesting to know what we are not being shown here. In the case of Sanjar’s tomb, for example, we are not shown the superb dome with its encircling galleries, but only the juncture of two blank walls marked by the dark aperture of a window toward which a ladder mysteriously ascends. Here esthetic austerity balances sensuality, and eliminates any trace of the merely exotic. In the end, it is Kami’s sheer restraint that makes his images so moving.

Many of his technical devices and obsessions come together in an ongoing series of massive (six-foot-high) portraits. Here he begins with a photograph, makes a small painting based on it, then takes a black and white photograph of the painting, which he finally subjects to the same processes of expansion, division, and reassembly he used in the architectural studies. The result is a series of images that look like enormous, grainy mug shots until you look closer and notice traces of Kami’s characteristically meticulous brushwork. His subjects resemble the kind of young toughs, hoodlums, and hustlers Jean Genet would have slavered over. One with protuberant ears and an unreadably impassive expression is especially compelling, but Kami’s approach is not Genet’s. He is much too classical for that. His young men are veiled, distanced, monumental. Their heads are the heads of colossi. They are in the process of becoming architecture.

John Ash’s most recent book, A Byzantine Journey, was published by Random House in 1995.