Kami's 'Perspectives': A State of Being That Transcends Cultural Boundaries

The towering 2005 portrait of a meditating man at the Sackler Gallery reflects a world of influences.
The towering 2005 portrait of a meditating man at the Sackler Gallery reflects a world of influences. (Alberto Spallanzani)
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By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 22, 2008

There are lots of ways to do it. Dervishes whirl ecstatically. Quakers sit in silence. Holy men in India (never sleeping through the night, or wandering very far) might keep a fire alight for months or even years. Religions of all different sorts have found, through meditation, ways of nearing the divine.

"Perspectives: Y.Z. Kami," now on exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, is itself a meditation -- a meditation in three paintings, big ones from New York.

Will Kami's three big oils-on-linen lead you toward the numinous? Maybe, maybe not. Are they Eastern art or Western; old in mood, or new? Yes, all of the above.

You see: a figure of a man. He's wearing a fleece jacket. His identity is not given. His portrait is nearly 10 feet high, and since it shows only his upper half, he's a lot bigger than you. He seems to be, he is, meditating deeply. His eyes are closed but not squeezed shut. He's half-humble, half-exalted.

Kami's seated figure isn't in sharp focus. The light about him seems to tremble. It isn't hard or crystalline but as soft as rabbit fur.

First that figure stops you with the weightiness of his presence. Then he calms you. All he has to tell you is seen in his expression. He seems utterly unhassled, entirely at peace.

Kami's portrait of a woman, displayed across the room, isn't quite as large or wonderful. She's meditating, too.

Between them is an image of a very different sort. This one is not a portrait. It's sort of a mandala or a diagram suggesting the inward movement of their thoughts. The painting seems to spin. At its center is a spot of light continually receding. What is this a picture of? For some, it might suggest that tunnel of white light that people are supposed to see at the instant of their deaths. For others, it might represent what T.S. Eliot called "the still point of the turning world," a good theme for meditation. I, myself, saw bricks.

Peering at that picture is like standing with your face upraised underneath a punctured dome, say, the Pantheon's in Rome, or that of some Turkish mosque, looking through the oculus, which interrupts the masonry high above your head and lets you see, beyond, the brightness of the sky.

I might have thought of bricks because that light-point is surrounded by rings of longish yellow rectangles. Inscribed on each in ink, in fine Persian calligraphy, is a couplet from "The Song of the Reed," a lyric by the poet Rumi (1207-73).

The reed is singing plaintively of how it has been cut from the reed bed, as if it were a lover torn from the beloved, or a soul yearning for God.

Listen to the reed and the tale that it tells,

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