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Originally slated to be shown in March, Salman Toor’s dynamic, figurative paintings take on new dimensions of nostalgia and yearning in How Will I Know, his first solo museum exhibition at the Whitney Museum. Toor, who was born in Lahore, Pakistan and now resides in New York, captures the anonymous intimacy of public urban life — the theater of crowded bars and lovers perched on stoops — tableaus that viewers prior to the pandemic might have found simply relatable now feel potent in their depictions of forbidden conviviality.
Adrift in this reverie are Toor’s subjects: South Asian, queer men. These men are stylish, evinced by the artist’s careful representation of details like the glint of a gold ring or a bandana tied just so ‘round a recurring character’s neck. Toor’s subjects exude a familiarity with the othering gaze as well as with the elements of performance that can subvert it. In “Bar Boy” (2019), one such figure, sporting a purple, broad-brimmed hat, is situated in the center of a lively bar surrounded by cavorting patrons who seem to pulsate with energy. These eddies of movement, emphasized by undulating hues of green rendered in Toor’s signature, generous brushstrokes, draw attention to the man’s stillness. Despite a demonstrated fluency in his cosmopolitan environment, the figure stands aloof, peering down at his phone, imbued with a sense of ambient loneliness.
Technology is woven seamlessly throughout Toor’s work, smartphones cradled in the palms of partygoers and laptops balanced precariously on side tables are a constant reminder of the secondary, digital lives these subjects lead. In “Bedroom Boy” (2019), a reference to Manet’s “Olympia,” a nude man, sprawled across a white bedspread, gazes into the camera of his phone, lofted high to catch the right angle. Beyond centering the brown, queer body, Toor’s rendition of the reclining nude toys with embedded notions of power and privilege, recasting technology as a tool for returning erotic agency to the subject.
Indeed, social media has provided platforms for queer, people of color to organize, to find love (whether in another or in oneself), and to create small, everyday utopias. However, these same platforms have also been roundly criticized for seeding a culture of narcissism. Toor portrays this dichotomy in “The Star” (2019), in which a man stares quizzically at his reflection as make-up artists and stylists beautify him, the slight differences between reality and reflection an allegory for the aspiration toward the ideal self. Here, Toor examines the duality of self curation as promoted by social media, a practice that can be both isolating and empowering.
Like his subjects, Toor is trying to shape a new narrative, rendering brown, queer life in looping, layered brushstrokes, reclaiming an aesthetic language that recalls the whitewashed tradition of Western art history. The viridian-hued “Parts and Things” (2019) visualizes Toor’s artistic practice of amalgamation through a closet of dismembered body parts. Illustrated in funhouse proportions, heads, hands and phalluses — each embodying a different artistic influence — are draped atop one another like discarded costumes.
How Will I Know is a chronicle of the making and unmaking of queer, diasporic identity. The show invites the visitor to become voyeur, tracing the tension between public and private for these men who inhabit multiple worlds. A sense of intimacy is fostered by Toor’s commitment to portraying these worlds holistically and with dignity. This is best exemplified by “Four Friends” (2019), where the subject is not depicted as other, but as a whole unto himself, experiencing freedom in a moment of dance and uninhibited joy. Until we can dance together again, Toor’s deeply empathetic paintings are a reminder of what it feels like to be seen.
Salman Toor: How Will I Know continues through April 4, 2021 at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking, Manhattan). The exhibition is curated by Christopher Y. Lew and Ambika Trasi.