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Arghavan Khosravi Explores Scale, History, and the Idea of Contradiction Through Her Art

By Julie Smith SchneiderSep 7 2022
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On a typical day, painter Arghavan Khosravi, 38, makes coffee and heads upstairs to her peaceful bird’s nest of a studio, a loft space located on the third floor of her home in Stamford, Connecticut. Her sculptural paintings fill the space, hanging from nails and leaning against the walls, where curly blue ribbons of tape, smeared with paint, dangle in a cluster. In the snug space, glowing with natural light filtered through gridded window panes, the artist turns on an audiobook — perhaps a Dostoyevsky novel, translated into Persian — or Netflix (The Split, a British drama about divorce attorneys, is a current go-to) and works till 10:30 pm or so, with breaks for sustenance.

“Before starting a painting, I look at source materials from all different places: Persian miniature paintings, fashion, photography, Renaissance paintings, even my Instagram feed,” Khosravi says. “Usually I have a general idea of what I want the painting to talk about. By looking at these images, I come up with a composition.” To plan the layouts of her paintings, she makes digital collages or drawings before cutting wood into precise shapes in her garage-turned-woodshop. She stretches canvas over some of the panels, depending on the textural needs of the work. To paint, Khosravi sits at a table and blocks off clean-edged sections of the panels with blue tape. With acrylic paints and acrylic mediums, she meticulously coaxes forth female figures, birds, fragments of ancient sculptures, and architecture — whole alluring worlds rich with symbolism and references to traditional Persian miniature paintings and her personal experiences growing up in Iran.

Khosravi’s works are currently on view around Rockefeller Center through November 10, 2022, as the latest Art in Focus exhibition, a series produced in partnership with Art Production Fund. The campus-wide presentation features monumental vinyl murals with digital reproductions of the artist’s recent works installed at 10 Rockefeller Plaza, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, 50 Rockefeller Plaza, the Rink Level of 45 Rockefeller Plaza, Top of the Rock, the ZO. Clubhouse, and Radio Park.

The marble walls of 45 Rockefeller Plaza, inset with a trio of brass-framed vitrines, hold three new site-specific artworks that feel like multi-dimensional collages. Playing with concepts of space and perspective, Khosravi’s paintings blend meticulous trompe-l’oeil scenes with tangible elements — wooden shapes, black cord, a fringe of cream-colored feathers. The pieces draw on imagery from traditional miniature paintings, including the Iranian Persian epic story Shahnameh and Layla and Majnun. “I reference these old paintings to narrate my own story, which is detached from the original story,” Khosravi says. “Unlike those older works, where everything is flat… I wanted to take a more sculptural approach.”

To shake up historical precedence, Khosravi’s artworks incorporate a depth of field, as well as a strong presence of women with agency. Women, she explains, typically have secondary roles in traditional Persian miniature paintings. The men depicted in her works lack individuality. They’re shown in groups of smaller figures, in contrast to the more dominant, distinctive female figures.

Born in 1984 in the Iranian mountain city of Shahr-e Kord, Khosravi moved to Tehran, where she’s spent most of her life, at the age of 9. Since childhood, she has loved drawing, and her parents championed her budding artistry. Her father works as an architect, with a focus on traditional architecture, so Khosravi grew up around traditional Islamic designs and tile patterns, which, she says, likely shaped her visual vocabulary as an artist. Her mother was an athlete and a member of the National Iranian volleyball team before the Islamic revolution. “She was the first person that took me seriously,” Khosravi says. “Even though I was making funny drawings, she treated each of them as a masterpiece. That was very formative for what I do.”

Despite having open-minded parents who encouraged her to follow her creative passion, if she so desired, Khosravi absorbed a larger cultural message that fine art was something to pursue on the side — not as a serious career. For what she perceived to be a more practical and financially sound choice, she completed a BFA in graphic design from Tehran Azad University and took a job with an ad agency after graduation. While working that job, she earned an MFA in illustration from the University of Tehran, and eventually illustrated about 20 children’s picture books.

But, a life in fine arts beckoned. In 2015, Khosravi moved to the US and completed a post-baccalaureate studio art program at Brandeis University, which, she says, “has a special place in my heart because that’s where I started to take painting seriously.” With the portfolio she created during the program, she applied and got accepted to graduate school at Rhode Island School of Design; she completed her MFA in painting in 2018. Since then, Khosravi has received various fellowships and grants and exhibited her art around the world.

An ongoing exploration of contradiction wends through Khosravi’s body of work. “When I started painting, I wanted to fuse traditional and modern imagery — one kind of contradiction,” she says. The concept shows up in her works inspired by traditional miniature paintings with women depicted wearing contemporary clothes, for example. Greek and Roman statuary, a recurring visual element in her work, are shown not in their original state as monuments to flawless human forms, but as weathered fragments. “There is this contradiction within the object itself: an object that was made to show an ideal image is now broken and eroded. And with these sculptures and the miniature paintings, there’s a Western-Eastern contrast.”

With her new exhibition opening in a bustling artery of Manhattan, Khosravi has a chance to explore another juxtaposition: scale and historical styles. Her installation opens up a visual conversation between the Persian miniature paintings that inform her work — an artform thought to date back as far as the 3rd century CE — and Rockefeller Center’s quintessential mid-century Art Deco architecture. “I'm excited to see how the work looks in large-scale in these buildings,” Khosravi says.

Given the wide cross-section of humanity who visit the landmark Rockefeller Center campus each day, new viewers — beyond the typical contingent of art world professionals — have a chance to wander into the realms contained in Khosravi’s art. “It’s a place where so many different people visit, giving more exposure to my work and showing my work to an audience who aren’t necessarily there to see art.” She adds, “Hopefully these works create a moment of pause so they can look and maybe think about subject matters that, prior to this, they didn't have in their minds.”

Arghavan Khosravi’s artwork will be on view around the Rockefeller Center campus through November 10, 2022. This installation is part of Art in Focus, a series of art exhibitions produced in partnership with Art Production Fund.

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