Salman Toor
JUXTAPOZ|Winter 2022
From Pakistan with Love
David Molesky
The fantasy of an unknown artist suddenly being discovered so rarely happens, but for Salman Toor, born in 1983 in Lahore, Pakistan, it became his reality. For over a decade or so, Salman had been creating paintings in NYC reflecting his experience as a queer, immigrant brown man when the moment arrived almost completely out of the blue—or green, in his case!

Unbeknownst to Salman, one of the curators at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Ambika Trasi, had been following Salman’s work for years. After seeing an exhibition of his newest batch of paintings, Ambika and her colleague asked to meet Salman. Several visits later, the curators invited him to produce a new body of works for a solo exhibition at the museum, with the caveat that the show be ready in just seven months. Ecstatically, Salman accepted this golden opportunity and rose to the challenge, swiftly creating powerful new works that so perfectly encompass the fundamentals of his oeuvre.

It was around this same time that he emerged into the consciousness of art world followers via social media posts. Even as small-scale digital images, they grab attention with a unique sense of colour palette and luscious buttery surfaces. Bedroom Boy, the small painting of a lounging nude taking a selfie was what I saw first. The light raining down from the smart phone reminded me of Titian’s painting of Danae and the shower of gold. This image made the rounds when it was posted by New York art critic Jerry Saltz. I even met a young Icelandic artist who painted her own version.

Personally, I was excited to see paintings that are reminiscent of the best of the Post-Impressionists, yet speak to the preoccupations of today’s zeitgeist. I wanted to understand how these cartoon-like paintings could have so much power. The dabs and strokes that Salman uses to agitate the surface invite the viewer to imagine how it was painted and primes our consideration for hand gestures and a greater awareness of the haptic senses, our own physicality.

Feelings of tenderness pervade his compositions. It’s impossible not to fall in love with the almost caricatured, foolish-looking characters, with their slightly long noses, slouchy shoulders, and frail, tubular arms. Sometimes their noses or limbs are painted different colors, reinforcing the notion that they have been cobbled together like marionettes. Their plaintive poignancy completely plucks our heart strings, even if the characters might be very different from whom we identify or spend time.

I was surprised to learn that Salman initially painted in a strict academic style. From his deep love and appreciation for historic paintings came pressure to make a masterpiece. But a decision to change gears afforded more than a year to experiment wildly, loosely and unplanned as he approached his canvases with the abandon of a rockstar. Although these initial experiments took him out into strange new forms that included drips and text, the pendulum swung back towards the historic, where Salman settled in to make the expressive figurative works we know today.

The narrative and conceptual content of Salman’s artistic project has long been in the works, beginning with the culture shock of landing in the suburban midwest as an immigrant man post 9/11. At Ohio Wesleyan University, Salman was introduced to painting and developed an insatiable appetite for Western Art History. With such new lenses through which to view the world, he cross-pollinated his personal experiences with iconography from the grand tradition of painting.

Traveling back and forth between Pakistan and college, he observed how the immigration officers would collect bits and pieces to identify who you are. He began to see his style of dress and what he carried at airport security in relation to nineteenth-century portraiture in which the details and patterns of clothing reveal the trade routes accessed to such depicted individuals.

Upon finishing his undergraduate degree, Salman moved to NYC to attend the Pratt Institute and became a denizen of the East Village, where he fell in love with the nocturnal power of the city, its clubs, bars, and apartment gatherings. Enjoying these safe spaces, both public and private, inspired Salman to create loosely autobiographical domestic scenes of bourgeois urban life.

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