Salman Toor’s intricate scenes of gay men socializing in bars, bedrooms, and other urban spaces portrays Brown men navigating the complexities of assimilation and otherness with both joy and solitude. While often portrayed in groups, there’s something always “other” about them.
Charles Baudelaire once compared entering the metropolis to “bathing in the multitude”—a drunkenness of “universal communion” where “the unforeseen arises, the unknown person passes.”1 With his lush, figurative scenes of gaggles of gay men hanging out in watering holes, outside brownstones, and on street corners with a drink in every hand, Salman Toor seems to channel romantic notions of urban living—of being alone in a crowd, one of many. Based in Brooklyn but hailing from Lahore, Pakistan, Toor spent his time in school trying to paint like European Old Masters, combining stylistic elements from Rococo, the Dutch Golden Age, and early Modernism, among many other periods, with inspirations from contemporary figurative painters and influences from his own personal experiences as a queer-identifying Brown man caught between East and West. His project is, in part, to “enter Brown bodies into the language of the humanities, symbolized by the European nude,” he notes.2 This tension runs throughout all of his work; there is almost always a Brown body surrounded by a veritable sea of white ones.
Take Bar Boy (2019), in which we see a South Asian gentleman in the dead center of the canvas, surrounded by groups of white people clutched together, spinning martini glasses in their fingers. Standing alone, the central figure gazes at his phone, his wide-brimmed hat seemingly lifted from the type ubiquitous in seventeenth-century Dutch painting, such as those by Frans Hals the Elder. Art critic Peter Schjeldahl called Hals the “virtuoso of the visible brushstroke” and—at the risk of exaggeration —the same could be said of Toor.3 In Bar Boy, reckless crosshatches and flighty daubs of paint add depth and shadow, while swelling shades of green reminiscent of the monochrome backgrounds of Pablo Picasso’s Blue and Rose periods build up and around the solitary man, transforming an ordinary wall into anything but; it’s more like hormones or electricity under the influence, languorously discharging.
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