The lamplit and smartphone-illuminated, sepia-blush-celadon world of Salman Toor’s art is filled with moments of maskless intimacy. In his current solo exhibition, How Will I Know (named for the 1985 Whitney Houston song), on view in the lobby gallery of the Whitney Museum, exquisite paintings depict his young subjects gathered in apartments, on a stoop, on a street corner, and at a crowded gay bar. The artist, who is from Lahore and now lives in the East Village, favors protagonists much like himself—queer South Asians in the era of Trump’s travel ban; lanky brown men with an epicene beauty and bohemian glamour. Given the acute longings endemic to our present circumstances, Toor’s scenes of closeness and spontaneous encounter, his renderings of a community (or demimonde), real or imagined, strike a powerful note of something like nostalgia.
But they would in more ordinary times too, I think. In the artist’s hands, the situations and accoutrements of contemporary life are suspended in time; he enfolds them in vintage atmospherics, magically smoothing anachronistic disjunctions with delicate impasto gestures and a melancholic style informed by diverse strains of sumptuous, camp-adjacent beauty, such as Watteau’s fêtes galantes, as well as the intoxicating cartoon chiaroscuro of classic Disney movies—Pinocchio (1940), in particular.
That animated film comes to mind not only for its brooding ambience and fairytale sense of an indeterminate historical past, but because Toor’s figures have a marionette-like bearing—sloped shoulders, wayward limbs, even curiously elongated noses. Such physical traits are pronounced in Four Friends (2019), which captures an evening of uninhibited socializing in a cramped living room. One figure in short shorts has fallen to his knees in a theatrical display of joyous supplication to his shimmying, neckerchief-wearing dance partner. Both of them appear to have long, weightless arms, as though invisible strings at the wrist hold them aloft. Two other men slouch together on a Rococo loveseat, one sharing something with the other—of little or only passing interest, it seems—on his phone.
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