Physical Keepsakes: Y.Z. Kami and Sally Mann at Gagosian

In her tender novella Tumble Home, Amy Hempel wonders what drives us to preserve parts of our lives. She recounts a disturbing yet endearing news clip, a clip that has an uncanny resemblance to the exhibitions currently hanging in Gagosian’s Beverly Hills Gallery: “A woman in West Virginia carried her unborn baby for more than forty years. It calcified outside the uterine wall. When questioned by reporters, the woman said, ‘As long as the child is inside of me I haven’t lost it.'” While Hempel isn’t referring to the work of Y.Z. Kami and Sally Mann, she certainly could be. Her narrative describes what the two artists are doing: preserving and remembering in a way that taps into the mysterious nature of physiology, the sort of mysterious nature that allows an unborn baby to become a meaningful keepsake. Continue reading for DailyServing’s review of the show.

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Review by Catherine Wagley for DailyServing


Gagosian Gallery promoted Kami’s and Mann’s solo shows as separate exhibitions. Kami’s occupies the first floor while Mann’s occupies the second, and neither press release mentions the other artist who will be sharing the building for the duration of the exhibition. Nothing in the presentation suggests any collaborative concept, but Kami and Mann suit each other beautifully. Both artists’ work is about the ways in which physicality captures emotion.

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Born in Tehran, Iran, Kami received degrees in Philosophy from both UC Berkeley and the Paris-Sorbonne University. He became a part of the international art world in the mid-1990s and had a series of striking shows at Deitch Projects from 1998-2001, installing his paintings and photographs so that they transformed Deitch’s gallery space into a portrait of contemporary life. However, the work currently hanging in Gagosian has a much more pensive, introspective feeling to it than did the work at Deitch Projects.

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Kami’s oil paintings, rendered in a loosely fleshy manner, emphasize human postures. The figures in his portraits say everything that needs to be said through their physiques and each feature suggests the weight of personal history. In Untitled (Marina I), the woman is engaged in a seemingly forced meditation. Her eyes closed, her shoulders slumped, and her hands unnaturally positioned on her lap, she appears to be trying hard to relax. Each portrait also has the physiological signs of age. Untitled (Maryam), which is of someone relatively young, also has the attributes of someone who has experience life’s turbulence: drooped red-rimmed eyes, lines across the forehead, and lines at the corners of the mouth. Even the artist’s collages of Hebrew, Persian and Arabic texts have to do with physiology. He composes the fragments of text to create one rhythmic, self-contained body. For Kami, features and postures become permanent reflectors of those inexplicable experiences that shape people’s lives.

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While Kami deals with postures, Mann zeroes in on the pores, the freckles, and the fleshiness of her subjects. And since her subjects are her own children, her works read as jarringly literal exercises in preservation and memory as she probes the geography of her children’s features. Mann’s 1992 series of images, Immediate Family, created a stir because it included intimate photographs of her occasionally nude children. The series struck its critics as tastelessly provocative. But Mann, who has described photography as a caress, wasn’t trying to shock. She was exploring the tenderness of physical memories.

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This current series of work, photographs of her now older children taken in 2000-2004, is more abstract and specific than her former, more narrative images. She uses her signature collodion process to create a weathered 19th Century aesthetic that adds to the work’s keepsake-like quality. In Emmett #24, the pores on her son’s face and the crinkles in his skin are prominent but his features remain obscured. In Virginia #34, the shapeliness of the girl’s features and the patterning of her freckles turn the image into a portrait of an essence rather than an actuality. The roughness, the interruptions, and the blurring caused by Mann’s technique highlights the emotive nature of her photographs, suggesting that capturing her children’s flesh in the most visceral way possible will make it last forever.

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Gagosian Gallery’s decision to present these two artists side-by-side enhances both exhibitions. While Kami’s work is more rhythmic and subdued than Mann’s heavier imagery, the two artists together make a memorable statement about what it means to preserve parts of human lives. By probing the physical features of people, histories and languages, Kami and Mann suggest that life’s physical traits are perhaps the most tender and telling mirrors of its emotional undercurrents.

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