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PHI Artiste Collectionpermanente Vivien Gaumand Salman Toor Group

Salman Toor

Group - 2020

Oil on board
101.6×76.2×6.4 cm
Collection of Phoebe Greenberg

Photo: Vivien Gaumand

Joseph Henry on Salman Toor

Thresholds: Salman Toor’s Group

Over the last two decades, critics and art historians have promoted painting’s relevance by describing how the medium can gather and mix various styles, images, and conventions. [1] In this sense, painting may be inherently “diasporic” if it can then also mediate the convergence of various global traditions. Born in Pakistan and now living in New York City, Salman Toor practices what might be called “diasporic painting”; in his work, idioms across Euro-American and South Asian repertoires meet and converse, whether Post-Impressionism, Mughal court painting, Pakistani landscape, or Southern Baroque. Toor’s diasporic painting thus draws connections not only at the level of global space but of historical time as well. His depictions, typically centered around queer men of colour, can be both contemporary records of everyday life and anachronic documents of art history.

Toor’s artistic upbringing has long been informed by an estranged approach to cultural heritage. In his native Lahore, he grew up amid the sundry artifacts of the Pakistani bourgeoisie: faux-rococo furniture, reproductions of Grand Manner portraiture, Arabic calligraphy, and Persian miniatures. Toor eventually moved to the American Midwest for schooling, where, under diasporic conditions, the artist located his own mode of belonging. “In Ohio there were cornfields and churches, frats and sororities, arts and alternative living compounds,” he explained in an interview. “I found my community in a hippy commune.” [2]

Upon moving to New York, Toor’s work, from the mid-2010s onward, evinced two strategies. The first, produced mostly between 2015 and 2018, featured abstracted figures set against a clash of stylized text, a script he calls “Persio-Arabic-English gibberish” (Toor is also a trained calligraphist). [3] Here, the contours of faces and bodies struggle for legibility amid a swirl of barely comprehensible words. The result is a veritable writing, and rewriting, of the self which oscillates between the individuating experience of diaspora and the collectivizing pull of a shared language.

Toor’s second approach became something like his signature style within contemporary art’s recent embrace of figurative, visibly queer painting. In these works, Toor crafted nondescript architectural settings featuring brown men and youths, many of them derived from people the artist knew. Some of these portraits depict scenes of conviviality, friendship, or agreeable solitude. Toor’s characters chat, dance, embrace, listen, and console one another, or spend private moments taking selfies, scrolling on their phones, or reading books—very often in the nude. Toor telegraphs his stylistic influences here; the group compositions recall Dutch genre painting while his virtuosic ground passages cite the more physical facture of late Jacques-Louis David or Édouard Manet. Through the recontextualization of venerable, visibly Western sources and the infusion of South Asian traditions, Toor creates environmental fictions that can shelter diasporic bodies. As Toor has stated, “the spaces are fantasies…. By creating these private, deeply comfortable and sometimes privileged-looking spaces, I want to give dignity and safe spaces to the boys of my paintings.” [4]

In this regard, Toor does not operate with the assumption of a diaspora free from colonizing violence, displacement, and control; the root of the word comes from the ancient Greek speiro, “to scatter.” Toor imagines his subjects not just as versions of intimates or friends, but archetypes constructed by Western perceptions—the “Potentially Dangerous Muslim Man” and the “Queer and Harmless Cultural Ambassador,” as he describes two such examples. [5] Group, which appears in this exhibition at the PHI Foundation, belongs to the more recent set of portraits. Here, the artist has transposed the somewhat generic locales of his pictures into the all-too-familiar yet impersonal sites of immigration and relocation. The swish demi-monde of an eroticized “New York” transforms into a markedly ethnic and cultural otherness. The casual amicability of partying becomes the mute impassivity of border control. The diasporic flipside of secure domesticity is restrictive detention.

In Group, Toor clusters a set of figures around the blunt, imposing barrier of the immigration desk. Collated documents sit at left, while an electronic fingerprint identification device hangs from the right side of the desk toward the rear. In the New York group portraits, Toor typically extends the composition to allow ample room for gratifying activities such as dancing, hanging out, and caressing. In Group, however, the artist clumps his figures, relegating them to the table’s width. This scene of border processing is not one of rationalized procedure, but of uneasy delay, oppressive congregation, dull waiting. Toor refuses a narrative mentality; we cannot tell if the men are resigning themselves to the situation, refusing to submit, or just looking to space out. Yet, for the central figure, Toor enlists the anachronistic gentleman in the top hat, more at home in the working-class French scenes of Courbet than in contemporary painting. The man in Group comes from beyond documentary time, allegorizing the painting so that the political realities of immigration are either frighteningly timeless or emboldeningly contingent.

Focusing on the represented figures, however, is literally only half of the story. In Group Toor employs a Manet-esque device, which he has typically used in gayer scenes, wherein a strong horizontal line establishes a clear, even artificial distinction between the positions of the imagined viewing subject and the depicted viewed object. The immigration desk implies our presence in front of it, in turn casting us in the scopic (perhaps sexualized) role of the border official, who possesses the agency to decide the fates of the immigrants before us. If, throughout his oeuvre, Toor has staged a sometimes sanguine cohabitation between “Western” pictorial styles and “Eastern” bodies, here that difference hardens into a power relation. In the end, cultural fusion may afford an opportunity for an imagined flourishing, a space of desirous attachment, but it is also something carved out from the conditions of diasporic life.

About the artist

Salman Toor’s sumptuous and insightful figurative paintings depict intimate, quotidian moments in the lives of fictional young, brown, queer men ensconced in contemporary cosmopolitan culture. His work oscillates between heartening and harrowing, seductive and poignant, inviting and eerie. In many of his paintings, he creates subtly disarming depictions of familiar domestic environments in which often-marginalized bodies flourish in safety and comfort. In other pieces, Toor creates allegorical spaces of waiting, anticipation, and apprehension; border crossings into a world that may or may not be welcoming. Central to his work are the anxieties and the comedy of identity. In creating his figures, he employs and destabilizes specific tropes in order to reflect on the way difference is perceived by the self and by others.

Figure–Ground

Salman Toor's Group is currently on view in Figure–Ground, a series bringing together several works from PHI's art collection that explore the figure and the complex and intimate correlation it establishes with its background.

Footnotes

[1] David Joselit. “Painting Beside Itself,” October 130 (Fall 2009): 125–34.

[2] Ayla Angelos. “‘I Wanted to Be as Good as the White Old Masters’: Meet Painter Salman Toor,” It’s Nice That (2019), https://www.itsnicethat.com/articles/salman-toor-art-071119.

[3] Micah Pegues. “Interview with Salman Toor,” Polychrome Mag (2019), https://www.polychromemag.com/blog/salman-toor-interview.

[4] Osman Can Yerebakan. “Salman Toor’s New Art Exhibition Is a Breathtaking Vision of Queer Intimacy,” Them (2018), https://www.them.us/story/salman-toor-time-after-time.

[5] Huzan Tata. “Painting Beyond the Lines: Salman Toor,” Verve (2018), http://www.vervemagazine.in/arts-and-culture/painting-beyond-the-lines-salman-toor.