Salman Toor runs the appalling risk of becoming a cult icon in his home country, a sad misfortune that has befallen a few Pakistani artists in the last few decades who have seen meteoric upswings in the western art industry. But Salman Toor we hope will not go down that rabbit hole. For some reason, there is an earnest yearning for him to be like the characters in his paintings; guileless, naïve, un-ingenuous.
It is the current show at the Whitney Museum in New York titled “How Will I Know” (November 13, 2020-April 4, 2021) that has catapulted Toor to the rarefied stratosphere of recognition. In his mid-thirties, he has evolved a narrative that is so beguiling, unpretentious and unforced that it seems to have sashayed out of his genetic framework. For the US audience and the critics, Toor’s work ticks off all right boxes; brown, queer, diasporic, searching for an identity. There seems to be a plethora of thematic concerns to tie them up in knots and keep them engaged. But what about the Pakistani audience? Do we get a privileged point of view?
The fact that Toor is brown means nothing to us. But we must remember that Toor paints brown people in his paintings, not himself. He paints the epistemic and phenomenological space between the lived reality and the ideation of it and he can do it without falsity because of his ethnicity and his role as a social archivist. So, at that moment, whether he is an uncomfortable, diasporic, brown, queer person shuttling between New York and Lahore becomes eroded to a certain degree. What is left however is the emotional quotient of the person in that narrative and it is as authentic as it is as joyful and compelling and heartbreaking and lonely. That is why his figures are so real and yet so nebulous – fragile, funny, tender, skeletal in their physique as if they would be decimated by iniquitous forces around them, holding on to the little happy moments of life by the skin of their teeth.
There is something to be said for Salman Toor’s equitable ease in handling of the New York stoop and funeral scene in a Lahore home. It is something that would have come to him since he first came to the US to study art in 2003 at Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware Ohio. But he is well aware of the class distinctions that are so heavily marked in the societal cadres of Pakistan and he has painted these dichotomous scenes often through the years, looking at alcoholic-binged parties through the eyes of the domestic help in a rabidly Mullah-driven, dry country, where homophobic clerics rape young boys.
There is a painting in the Whitney collection Man with Face Creams and Phone Plug of a man standing forlornly amidst a meager set of his worldly possessions; a phone, a charger, a face cream, a bottle, some odds and ends, part of the Immigration Series, he calls it. It stems from Muslim ban put into place by the Trump administration leading up from the 9/11 restrictions on travelers. Quizzically, the man is looked at through the eyes of the immigration officer whom we never see but who is all the more insidious because of it. Interestingly, in other paintings of New York and of Pakistan, the noxious policeman is lurking in the shadows. He is forever the wolf preying on the hapless. But Toor’s green paintings are his most luscious. If he calls them poisonous or toxic, they are far from it. They are sensuous and captivating and would make for great indie film filters.
Much has been said about Toor’s fascination for the westerns masters of Rococo and Renaissance — Caravaggio, Van Dyck and Watteau and apparently some artists suggested to him early in his career that he should swiftly move away from his preposterous yearning for classicism and move on to more contemporary techniques of art; or whatever they reckoned would help Toor receive acknowledgment in the art world. What they failed to understand was that it was fundamental for Toor to evolve through the process of the meticulous rendering of the landscape as background, the chiaroscuro, the creating of the co-extensive space wherein the action in the painting protracted far beyond the configuration and into the space of the viewer, the detailed figuration and so on; so that he may be the painter he is today. Toor took his time traversing the annals of history with his brush because he knew he had much to absorb and discover. Those elements gleaned, garnered and assembled, were then re-imagined, re vivified and re-imagined, not just as liminal or peripheral constructs but as snatches of the prevalent social order; lives lived and losses lost. The painting The Arrival depicts two men at the door. Yet we immediately start to relate in our heads the animated conversation they must surely be having. In Four Friends, one can swear one hears the strains of hip-hop the two dancers are jamming to with such abandon. The narratives in Toor’s paintings are large, intense, though contrarily his protagonists are everyday, common, quotidian. The similarities to Caravaggio are unintentional and yet so discernable.
However, this relationship with classicism puts many commentators ill at ease (though collectors and dealers seem to gravitate towards it ) as they say it speaks to a degree of intransigence. But Toor has thought long and hard about his relationship with the masters before advancing his own personal idea of representation. It’s a place where torpid, unhurried color, languorous form and textural materiality reconcile to create an autonomous presence that is intimate, tender but more importantly relevant to the age we live in.