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Toor painting of 2 men with dogs
Toor painting of 2 men with dogs

Salman Toor, Puppy Play Date, 2019, oil on panel, 40 x 30 inches.

One of the things that painting still tends to do better than other forms of pictorial art is express subjectivity. In large part, this comes from a lifetime of training in reading the works for signs of the artists’ personalities, their public concerns, private obsessions and psychological struggles. We have been taught to do this as a culture, over the course of more than five centuries. And as a medium, painting does lend itself to this sort of reading. The process—often a solitary communion or contest with the subject and materials, as well as the materials themselves—seems to imprint a visible trace of the artist’s interiority onto the support. Paint laid down on a surface frequently retains the index of the painter’s movements; observing the brush strokes, we can rehearse the artist’s gestures and decisions, recorded in sequence, like the “permanent memory-trace” to which Freud refers when discussing the “Mystic Writing-Pad.”

We know well that certain subjectivities have been privileged over others throughout history; painting proves no exception. The works of 37-year-old New York painter Salman Toor grapple with that history by manifesting a hitherto underrepresented subjectivity. Born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan, Toor studied art in the US, and limns a world of queer Brown men oscillating between South Asia and North America. Two paintings hanging side by side at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the artist’s first solo museum exhibition illustrate the cultural bifurcation Toor’s work straddles. In Tea, 2020, a scrawny, scruffy young man in patched jeans stands on the right at one end of a wooden table where a balding patriarch sits glowering and smoking, opposite a woman in a flowing

Toor painting of 2 men

Salman Toor, The Arrival, 2019, oil on panel, 18 x 14 inches.

garment who is looking over her shoulder at the young man. At the far end of the table, two more women (sisters? aunties?) stare glumly—one at the table, one at the family scene unfolding before them. The ensemble suggests the return of the prodigal son and speaks of generational and cultural gulfs. Certain details of the uncomfortable-looking young man’s appearance—a friendship bracelet, a knotted blue neckerchief, black-painted nails—intimate that we might read the son’s return as particularly fraught, a coming-out confrontation. The artist hints at the risks inherent to self-revelation in the bosom of a traditional family by illuminating the scene with an overhead light that resembles the one in Picasso’s Guernica and by having the mother grasp a small, elegantly curved sinister knife, with which she was just about to slice the fruit on a plate.

In the second work, Bar Boy, 2019, another young man, or possibly the same one, enters a lively gay bar, this time wearing a rakish broad-brimmed blue hat and staring into his smart phone’s glow. The wistful tilt of his head marks him as far more relaxed than his counterpart in the family romance, but he remains psychologically isolated, set off compositionally from the wedges of bar patrons to either side, who converse in groups, sip martinis, or dance in couples. Two fellows snog in the upper right, while in the lower left a man with long blond tresses rests his head in the crook of his apparently boneless arm, echoing the sleeping figure in Picasso’s 1931 Woman with Yellow Hair, in the Guggenheim.

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