One can’t help but feel a sense of relief upon entering How Will I Know, Salman Toor’s highly anticipated solo American institutional debut. Unfortunately, the show’s planned March 2020 opening coincided with the unforeseen shutdown of museums and galleries, leaving us to wonder for months what we were missing. Relief, then, came from being immediately greeted at the show’s entrance by Four Friends (2019), a joyous and enchanting painting of queer men reveling in each other’s company inside a vibrant fern-green apartment. Despite an extensive delay, the party has gone on after all.
Toor, who was born in Lahore, Pakistan in 1983 and emigrated to the US in the mid-aughts, presents 15 paintings that primarily feature queer and Brown figures in imaginative, dream-like tableaus. In works like The Star (2019) and Puppy Play Date (2019), these dreams are celebratory and luscious; in others, such as the interrogative airport security scene, Man with Face Creams and Phone Plug (2019), these dreams are nightmares of racist and xenophobic realities. Toor’s paintings transition easily from pleasure to violence. Although their narratives are decidedly figurative, it is difficult to fully grasp them. Instead, Toor depicts transitory moments that are rife with potentials at every glance.
On each canvas, the artist uses sketch-like marks as a way to emphasize disparate and individualized pieces coming together to form something new. This is made poignantly clear in Parts and Things (2019), a still-life of sorts that features clothing and accessories heaped together with severed limbs and heads. It is possible to identify these same objects and body parts in the lively scenes of the other paintings, which suggests that, like each individual brushstroke contributing to the larger whole, the figures on display are an amalgamation of disparate pieces that exist cohesively. In addition to the artist’s own interest in fashion, this may be why clothing seams are repeatedly emphasized throughout the exhibition. As individual dashes, the seams are identical with the marks that fill the canvases. At the same time, they also specify the way in which individual surfaces are delicately held together.
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