Facing Duality: Arghavan Khosravi Interviewed by Will Fenstermaker

The painter talks about her work across cultures.

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Arghavan Khosravi, Fragility of Peace, 2019, acrylic and phototransfer on cotton canvas and found textile mounted on wood panel, 40 × 57 inches.

I first saw Arghavan Khosravi’s lush and intimate paintings earlier this year at Four, a concise exhibition at Yossi Milo Gallery that featured four young artists curated by Doron Langberg. In Inward Element (2018), a woman folds her legs in a flat plane, framed by a vegetal motif borrowed from Persian textiles. She’s entwined with a second body that is mostly off-frame. Khosravi’s paintings had something of Leonora Carrington’s poignant mysticism and narrative flair, but she combined Persian motifs with material experimentation. Like many critics, I thought Khosravi’s paintings were the standout of the show.

Born in Shahr-e Kord, Iran, in 1984, Khosravi moved to Tehran when she was eight, and while there earned two degrees, including an MFA in illustration. After working for several years as a graphic designer and children’s book illustrator (she illustrated about twenty books), Khosravi left Iran in 2015 to attend a post-baccalaureate program at Brandeis University before receiving a painting MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). In 2018, Khosravi was a resident at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she made some of the works exhibited at Four. At RISD she met the painter Mira Schor, whose own early, Surrealist paintings were inspired by her time on the Cape. Schor, Khosravi told me, introduced the young painter to Isaac Lyles whose gallery, Lyles & King, is currently hosting Khosravi’s first solo exhibition in New York City.

—Will Fenstermaker


Will Fenstermaker I want to ask you about the red strings that run throughout your recent paintings. They connect a lot of elements in the images, like a narrative thread, but then they also make recurring gestures: they bind the figures by their arms and necks, form haloes above their heads, and run in and out of their ears and eyes.

Arghavan Khosravi Yes, for example, the rope has entangled a woman but is not tightly binding her, or it has formed an oval shape that seems like a shackle around her arms, yet is not actually touching her. In all my paintings, I’m conveying a life dominated by a religious-ideological autocratic system, but I’m aiming for an indirect and subtle approach. For me the thread symbolizes these lines drawn by an autocratic power—or perhaps more generally the oppression of women in patriarchal societies—which must not be overstepped. And its color, red, carries these connotations of repression, suppression, and imposition of power.

In most cases, the rope doesn’t seem to be a very violent presence, and it may even seem visually elegant. In some paintings it’s very physical, while in others it’s conceptual. It also works as a compositional tool, guiding your eyes around the picture plane and bringing some dynamism to my compositions, which are otherwise deliberately static. But in all cases, its ultimate function is to control the figures. That’s where the title of the exhibition comes in: Tightrope Walking the Red Lines. It’s about the art of finding a balance within those restrictions that are imposed on you, so you can go where you want to go.

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Arghavan Khosravi, Ascension, 2018, acrylic on herringbone linen canvas mounted on wood panel, 32.5 × 39.5 inches.

WF I can’t help thinking of the function of the red line as a kind of loom weaving. In terms of warp and weft, it’s a supporting or narrative device, but it also forms a motif of itself. You’ve recently started working actual string into your paintings, and obviously there’s a relationship between thread and textiles, which you incorporate in your work, too.

AK I’m interested in hearing that connection, but I think my use of textiles grew out of a previous series I was working on right after the travel ban. I was using my anger as fuel in my studio, but the blank canvas was intimidating. So I had this idea to paint on pages of my expired passport and weave my narrative into the visual structure that was already there. But after a while, the associations of the passport felt limited to that particular political moment.

So I started using Iranian banknotes as my canvas, again scanning and printing them large-scale. All of these works were on paper, and I wanted to try different materials. First I used some textiles that I found here, in the United States, just to see how I could apply paint. After a couple of paintings I asked my father to send textiles from Iran because of their connection to my cultural identity and life experiences there. They arrived already culturally loaded.   

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Arghavan Khosravi, You’re Free to Fly, 2019, acrylic on found textile mounted on wood panel, 32 × 50 inches.

WF To follow this idea through some of your paintings: Glass Ceiling of Underground World (2018) suspends a half-nude woman, but also forms what looks like a crinoline. Underneath that, there’s a glass cone that looks like a skirt and contains a group of Persian mythical figures. The title of the painting is suggestive, and I think it speaks to how you use dress and fashion in your work.

AK The figures I depict are in elegant and presumably nonviolent positions, and I often source fashion photographs to suggest these poses. But I put them in a context that hints at something uncomfortable. Fashion can be an example of hidden violence, even in developed societies. The crinoline suggests entrapment and control, and the glass shows fragility, suspension, and uncertainty, which are a big part of my life these days. (laughter)

The other role of fashion in my paintings is that it reduces the sense of otherness and ties them to a specific point in time; it shows that the depicted narrative is happening here and now, rather than in a timeless realm, even with all my references to historical imagery. The blending of Eastern and Western, past and present, religious and secular, or real and fantastic imagery speaks to my psychological tension from having been born in, and spending my whole life in, a country that is ruled by Sharia law, while its middle class is increasingly moving toward a modern way of living and thinking.

In Iran you’re always facing this duality. I was born soon after the Islamic Revolution, and as young as six or seven I learned that when you go to school you’re stepping out of a private space, which might be liberal, into the public sphere, which is regulated. You learn that these are two separate spaces, and you shouldn’t talk about what happens between them. For example, if one’s parents drink, it shouldn’t be mentioned at school; there was a cost to singing the songs everybody listened to at home.

WF I wonder if that suspension of identity is related to the white smock that recurs in a lot of your paintings—the woman in the white coat. It’s like a uniform.

AK Part of it is a visual choice, because the textiles I’m using already have a lot of patterns and dense colors, so the white clothing balances that out. But, yes, in some paintings I wanted her to wear something neutral. Sometimes I want the characters to show that they’re forced to lack individuality, and the uniform is part of that.

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Arghavan Khosravi, Simurg, 2019, acrylic on linen canvas mounted on shaped wood panel, 31 × 42 inches.

WF One of the tensions that’s readily apparent in your paintings is between the lushness of the painted surface and the violence lurking beneath. They’re gorgeous paintings technically, but I think what’s particularly enticing about them is that they never really cohere one way or the other; the narratives remain complex and open. Even as you give a critique, you do so through an earnest use of traditional literature, imagery, and techniques. So apart from textiles, you draw stacked perspective from illuminated manuscripts; and in works like Siavash (2018) and Simurg (2019), you invoke stories from the Shahnameh and Persian literature.

AK Persian miniature paintings comprise a rich visual and cultural reservoir. Almost all miniature paintings were made to illustrate literature, and some of the richest masterpieces are from the Shahnameh, the “Book of Kings.” The stacked perspective—which is also present in medieval painting—has no vanishing point, which flattens the space and gives a sense of distortion. So I’ve appropriated that unreal space, with its traditional figures, gestures, and architecture, and used its disproportion and false perspective to intensify the sense of distortion and displacement that I feel navigating the different aspects of my life.

I should say that although the main characters in the Shahnameh are men, there are many female characters who have strong roles and are not passive at all, especially given that the book was written about a thousand years ago. Homa, the daughter of King Bahman, inherited the throne for a short time before her son was born, but she enjoyed the kingdom so much that she put her son in a box and left it on a river. Or there is Soudabeh, who married Keykavous, the man she truly loved, in spite of her father’s disagreement.

I want to have an honest approach in how I use these cultural references; I’m not interested in exploiting the heritage I have. I’m talking about my experiences in Iran through my own lens as an Iranian woman, but I don’t want to victimize myself or people who’ve had the same journey as me. Although they are undermined in some areas, there are a lot of powerful women in Iran who are fighting and who have progressive ideas.

That’s not necessarily what a Western audience sees of my culture and the culture of similar countries. The images they see through the media sometimes distort things, and I don’t want to be on the same path as that kind of storytelling. In Simurg, the creatures are all drawn from one of these traditional stories. The simurg is a bird, kind of like a phoenix. In its claws it holds a predatory animal, and in its beak it holds that animal’s prey. The prey holds a branch—its own food—in its mouth. I was thinking of the circle of life, and this creature that’s in charge of that cycle. But then it’s the woman who has control over the mythical creature, since she holds the simurg in her hands.

Arghavan Khosravi: Tightrope Walking the Red Lines is on view at Lyles & King in New York City until November 10.

Will Fenstermaker is an art critic based in New York.

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