JPEGs do no favors for Arghavan Khosravi’s work; though they look flat and one-dimensional online, the artist’s canvases are emphatically sculptural in person, with intricate constructions, illusionistic uses of depth and surface, and judicious, almost exclamatory incorporations of found materials. Their complex relations all serve to articulate an Iranian woman’s view of her homeland’s repressive religious and cultural mores. Take Black Rain (2021), from her current exhibition “In Between Places” at Rachel Uffner in New York. Six differently shaped supports made of wood and canvas—discrete picture planes—combine to form a whole. In the foreground, an unnaturally pink-hued hand, cut out of thin wood, curls around the neck of a woman painted on a tall canvas stretched over an eight-inch-deep box. Almost all the works in the exhibition feature a woman with a pensive gaze and redacted facial features—a black rectangle covering her eyes or a chain locking her mouth—who seems to be a psychological stand-in for the artist.
In Black Rain, the woman’s carefully cropped portrait reveals her ear, wisps of hair, the side of her neck, and the collar of her purple shirt. From her ear dangles a large key, which in Khosravi’s lexicon may symbolize a freeing of sorts—from Iran, from gender expectations, from fundamentalism—especially if we observe the still life on the canvas behind it, in mid-ground. A shackle rests open, as if just unlocked, and is “chained” to six balls by a real cord looped through the piece. While the imagery is heavy-handed, it works in Khosravi’s hyperrealistic style, which is narrative in the way of a comic book (she was also trained as an illustrator). The components closest to the wall are a slower read: a man’s head is cut off below the eyebrows, spraying hundreds of falling dots, while a woman’s head is hidden by a book whose cover is cut out of the canvas, exposing the wall behind. Layered with Khosravi’s other symbols, the juxtaposition suggests knowledge is both a portal to freedom and a tool for independence.