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‘These new generations, they’re more courageous than us,’ says Iranian artist Arghavan Khosravi

The painter explores the liminal state of living between worlds in her show at Newport Art Museum

Iranian painter and artist Arghavan Khosravi is seen in her studio with her work in Stamford, Conn.Jennifer S. Altman

STAMFORD, Conn. — As an Iranian in America and as a woman raised by a secular family in a theocratic state, painter Arghavan Khosravi is in some ways neither here nor there, neither this nor that.

“I haven’t traveled back to Iran for almost seven years, and now I’m living here for nine years,” she told the Globe in an interview in her Connecticut studio. “I don’t feel that I totally belong to here still. Or back home. I’m feeling I’m living in that third space.”

Iranian painter and artist Arghavan Khosravi casts a shadow on a studio wall filled with her work in Stamford, Conn.Jennifer S. Altman

She moved to the United States in 2015 to attend a post-baccalaureate studio art program at Brandeis University and went on to graduate school at Rhode Island School of Design. Her career has taken off since her 2018 graduation, with solo exhibitions in New York, Brussels, and Berlin, as well as at Brandeis’s Rose Art Museum and the Currier Museum of Art. Now, she has a self-titled show at the Newport Art Museum.

That indefinable third space of both/neither characterizes her paintings, which, she said, “are about the idea of contradiction and duality.”

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Arghavan Khosravi, "Boundaries," 2020, acrylic on cotton canvas over wood panels, poplar wood frame.Julia Featheringill

They depict the double reality many Iranian women experience because strict religion-based laws can create a yawning gap between who they are in public and who they are in private.

“The restrictions and the laws that are imposed on us in public are unjust,” the painter said. “But in private, we can create our own safe space to live and think freely.”

Khosravi was born in 1984, five years after the Iranian Revolution, and grew up in Tehran. Her father is an architect; her late mother was a professional volleyball player before the revolution, the artist said, and then a coach.

“In public, we have the compulsory hijab,” she said. “You cannot drink. Most of the fun in your leisure time is forbidden. There are a lot of red lines that must not be overpassed. I think it becomes part of our DNA, this duality.”

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Arghavan Khosravi, "Every Morning News from Home," 2018, acrylic on linen wool on wood panel.Julia Featheringill

Her paintings are filled with deflections and reflections, as if reality cannot be pinned down. Women are often partially hidden, but still breeching barriers. Khosravi seems to bend both time and space, juxtaposing contemporary images with those drawn from Persian miniature painting and Western art history.

In “Every Morning News From Home,” in Newport, she flattens space in the manner of Persian miniatures; the composition echoes that of 13th- to 19th-century Persian manuscripts, which have text boxes in the middle, according to the painting’s wall label. Khosravi’s box isn’t filled with text. Instead, a woman stands behind a curtain, with her capri pants and sneakers sticking out from the box. Her hand does, too, with actual red threads connecting to the hand of another woman, whose torso and face are also out of the frame.

Arghavan Khosravi, "Shouting," 2021, acrylic on cotton canvas over wood panels.Julia Featheringill

“In Persian miniatures, women are passive or absent,” said Newport Art Museum’s Director of Curatorial Affairs and Chief Curator, Francine Weiss. “But Arghavan’s work is about women.”

The thread connection might suggest the news from home. Khosravi is in constant touch, but feels she can’t go back.

“I have my green card process pending, and I have an artist visa which allows me to work but not enter,” she said. “So it gets complicated.”

She has been watching protests in Iran from afar, like the 2022 uprising after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s morality police; they alleged she was not wearing a hijab properly. Khosravi’s most recent gallery show — and the one at the Rose — featured standalone paintings of women dressed in battle gear.

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“These new generations, they’re more courageous than us,” Khosravi said. “Now people are trying not to comply with all those forced rules, and sometimes they pay heavy prices.”

She doesn’t see herself moving home. In Iran, she said, “I felt that the room for me to progress and flourish in my work, the ceiling wasn’t high enough.”

Iranian painter and artist Arghavan Khosravi is seen in her studio with her work in Stamford, Conn.Jennifer S. Altman

In Tehran, she worked as a graphic designer and a children’s book illustrator. “Even when I wanted to illustrate this little kid, I had to cover her hair,” Khosravi said. “It didn’t feel true or honest.”

Simple symbols in her paintings, such as birds and trees, have many meanings. Take the threads: They can be red lines you’re forbidden to cross. But in another painting, “The Miraj (1),” they stream from a woman’s bloodshot eye into a pool reflecting the sky.

Arghavan Khosravi, "The Miraj (1)," 2020, acrylic on cotton canvas over wood panels, leather cord.Julia Featheringil

“I was in the gallery last week, and two people were crying,” Weiss said.

You don’t have to be an Iranian woman to feel a conflict between public strictures and private life.

“Unfortunately these things on different levels are universal,” Khosravi said.

Her studio occupies the top floor of the townhouse she shares with her husband. She has converted the garage into a woodshop, where she cuts wood panels for her often oddly shaped, sometimes three-dimensional paintings. The spaces she depicts are increasingly complicated and full of illusions. The studio, filled with finished and half-finished works, feels like a dream world.

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Indeed, maybe her studio is another third space — one that is neither here nor there, but where anything can happen.

Khosravi looked around: paintings in delicate colors jutting and swelling off the wall, full of battles and barriers, infused with tenderness.

“It’s like a safe space or haven that I can go to and be away from the real world. Maybe that’s why I cannot not paint,” she said. “Otherwise I don’t feel good.”

ARGHAVAN KHOSRAVI

At Newport Art Museum, 76 Bellevue Ave., Newport, R.I., through May 5. 401-848-8200, www.newportartmuseum.org/exhibitions/arghavan-khosravi/


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Instagram @cate.mcquaid.