New York

Y. Z. Kami

Deitch Projects

Y. Z. Kami’s installation of sixteen portraits occupied the gallery space with a stately presence. Each painting is three to four feet high by two to three feet wide and depicts the head of its subject. The sitters range in age from their late teens to their seventies; about half are women, half men, and all are shown against a light earth-tone background. Although executed on linen, the paintings’ nubbly, claylike texture suggests fresco. Other writers have noted their relation to Alexandrian portraits, but whereas those works usually indicate facial and bodily features with simple, clear strokes, Kami’s portraits are thickly built up, almost layered. Many also have a hazy quality that requires us to look more deeply into them to gain focus, until finally the subject seems to occupy a space just to the fore of the painting’s surface. A few of the portraits, such as that of a young man in a white oxford shirt, are delineated more sharply than others, giving the impression that some greater reserve or vulnerability fixes that person more firmly to the two dimensions of the canvas.

One wonders, of course, what all these anonymous people have in common. They might all share an ethnic or geographical origin—Middle or Near Eastern, like Kami himself, who is Iranian. Beyond this superficial tie (which it is, in such sophisticated and intense portraits as these), it’s almost impossible to say. Perhaps only that each is willing to impart to us something as rare as it is exciting: an intimate glimpse of a complete stranger. As Baudelaire understood, strangers are the only people we can know, however briefly, since in them humanity is reduced to platonic absolutes of grief, wonder, pain, desire, anger, and love. Another allusion to the ancient world these portraits suggest is the chorus in Greek drama. Part of the fascination they exert lies in the feeling that perhaps they see (and understand, and judge) us more clearly than we them. And one wonders, a bit abashedly, whether one’s own face conveys such composed discernment.

The installation itself, along with the subjects, is untitled, compounding the mystique of anonymity. This quality, however, is mitigated by the profound singularity of each subject’s expression: the riveting, wounded, angry stare of a young man with an adolescent’s mustache; the elegance of a short-haired woman in her early forties whose eyes fix on our own with equal parts despondency and concern; or the heavy-lidded, seductive wariness of a fellow in a T-shirt. Anonymity and individuality are intertwined in the visages by which we are known and know others, and Kami makes both qualities palpable, recognizing that we are best appreciated when our mystery, our “otherness,” is respected, and recognizing that it is only the need for such respect that is entirely common to all of us.

Tom Breidenbach