Light, Gaze, Presence: Y.Z. Kami exhibition

Light, Gaze, Presence: Y.Z. Kami exhibition

An interview with the Iranian-American artist currently showing in Florence.

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Thu 23 Feb 2023 12:58 PM

The paintings on display at Y.Z. Kami’s new exhibition, Light, Gaze, Presence, centred on Florence’s Museo Novecento ask something of their audience. Not in the sense that they demand mindless attention, photographing, scrolling or sharing online. Rather, they ask for a moment of our time, a moment of our undivided focus. 

Y.Z. Kami in the Salone dei Cinquecento, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

Born in Tehran in 1956, Kami began painting as a child in his mother’s studio. After studying philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, he moved to 1980s New York to exhibit his painting, which combined an interest in human psychology with close study of the human figure. His Light, Gaze, Presence multi-venue exhibition in Florence, which is displayed across Museo Novecento, Museo di Palazzo Vecchio, Museo degli Innocenti and Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte, showcases work ranging from his mesmeric Dome and Night Paintings series to unique portraiture pieces.

The elusive appearances of Kami’s art, from the inky clouds of Night Paintings to the semi-facelessness of his portraits, are initially unsettling. It could feel as though the artist is trying—and failing—to reach for closeness and intimacy. However, it is this part-recognition and part-unfamiliarity of these shapes, their simultaneous presence and absence, which makes the work so arresting. They require us to look closer and deeper, taking a moment to realign our perspective with the work and, by extension, ourselves. “In my painting, I want the viewer to have the experience of a moment of silence, just to have that space in order to be able to look inside,” Y.Z. Kami comments in an interview granted to The Florentine at the vernissage, “to have a meditative experience that is not all exposure to this ocean of information and images.”

Y.Z. Kami at the Museo degli Innocenti, Florence

The consuming “ocean” of images that Kami describes offers a likeness to modern immersive art experiences, which demand an audience’s attention in their all-consuming saturation of clarity and technicolour. The artist’s work counters this new wave of exhibition-cum-overwhelm, with his paintings not as much designed for Instagram as for exercising peace and contemplation. “I want—I hope—that my painting has a transformative function in the sense that it makes you reflect a little inside, on your inner being, so you are not being scattered all the time.” He continues: “We have become so scattered with new technology. The centre is almost lost. The mind is going from here to there constantly.”

Kami’s paintings can be described as active in that they activate a process in the viewer’s mind. His perspective, at once appearing and disappearing, creates a viewing experience that has a slow gestation. Museo Novecento director Sergio Risaliti remarks that this is especially timely against a backdrop of “places where, today more than ever, it is necessary to find and encourage slowness and contemplation in front of the work of art.”

Y.Z. Kami at the Museo Novecento, Florence
Y.Z. Kami in the undercroft of the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte, Florence

Particularly striking is the contrast between the three large paintings installed in the Salone dei Cinquecento at the Palazzo Vecchio and the violent Vasari frescoes behind them. As Kami describes, “the figures all have their eyes closed or their gaze is down. You might think that they are in introspection, meditation or in prayer… The juxtaposition is very interesting and also contemporary: the violence on the frescoes is occurring all over the world.”

The historic context of Museo Novecento—the gallery occupies the 13th-century Spedale of the Leopoldine—works to a similar effect. Notice the way in which the meditative perspective of Isaac is diametrically opposed to the elaborate decoration that frames the archway in which it is positioned. Kami’s message thrives off the discordance between his paintings and their curative experience. “You might think that the figures in the paintings just have their eyes closed and in front of this [overwhelming] scenery and are blind to it, but by looking inside they are searching for peace.”

Y.Z. Kami in the Salone dei Cinquecento, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

Like his figures, for Kami the process of creation is always a tussle. “You have some images in your mind, some colours, and you want to get to that. These are often running away from you, so it is a struggle. But at the same time, it has its moments of euphoria, but these are just moments.” His work offers transcendence and escape, whilst recognising its unsettling context. In a world distracted and anxious, Y.Z. Kami’s work is to inspire contemplation and mindfulness to the viewer, even if only for a moment. As he so perfectly summarises, “The message is to bring peace. That’s what we aim for.”


Light, Gaze, Presence is showing at Museo Novecento, the Palazzo Vecchio Museum, Museo degli Innocenti and Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte until September 24.

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