With a caustic palette and sketchy facture, Pakistani-born, Brooklyn-based artist Salman Toor paints queer Brown men into the picture. Fluidly drawing upon Western and South Asian canons alike, Toor’s narrative paintings portray marginalized subjects who have traditionally been excluded from art historical representation as they live out the urban bohemian experience with all of its pleasures and internal contradictions. The dapper men inhabiting his paintings flirt and fête their way through gay bars and house parties or enjoy wine and takeout in downtown apartments, their impassive faces lit by the glow of the smartphones and laptops that incessantly connect and alienate them. Toor is currently being honored with his first major institutional solo show, Salman Toor: How Will I Know, at the Whitney Museum of American Art; group shows at home and abroad will follow.
Cassie Packard What initially drew you to art, and to figurative painting more specifically?
Salman Toor I started drawing early as a kid, maybe around six. I was making images of women, sometimes copying them from my mother’s fashion magazines. I was drawn to the lines of their makeup, the graceful lines of their eyes and their bodies. I was a sissy boy, often bullied at school and policed everywhere else. The drawings were a way of inhabiting and feeling the empowerment of these women that I drew.
As an adult I paint figures to enhance my context as a queer man living between cultures. I use figurative imagery to mythologize my life, define my relationship to power, but also to laugh at myself and have fun.
CP You grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, and moved to the US to study art in college. How was that transition for you?
ST Dreadful. I was kind of speechless for a year, sauntering around like a zombie and soaking in the mundane goings-on of a college town in Ohio, forty minutes from Columbus, with one gas station and one mall, only accessible by road, miles away from campus. My roommate was a huge, white American boy, finally free of his parents, going to frat parties, having sex on the top bunk, skipping class, smoking grass. I strained to understand his American slang.
Surprisingly, at university there were some people from my high school in Lahore; the university seemed to be particularly generous to South Asians. I stuck to them like glue for the first year. Then I discovered the dreadlocked, blue-haired art kids on campus. I moved into a hippie commune with some of them. I really liked their long hair (I was growing mine too) and gentleness, along with the constant figure-drawing classes we did together. That was kind of the beginning of my American life. I was happy.
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