Salmar Toor has come a long way since he emigrated to the United States to study at Ohio Wesleyan University. Coming from Lahore, Pakistan, the young man was in for a culture shock when he arrived in the Midwest after the hustle and bustle of Lahore. The artist went on to receive an MFA in Painting from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Arriving in New York City was another awakening for Toor. The city’s many museums became his “happy place” and they served as an education in all different types of art.
Toor was consumed with works of Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical-era artists; he became proficient in mimicking the brushstroke and lighting that is reminiscent of paintings from the 1800s. His work resembles figurative paintings similar to the style of the Old Masters from Europe. He told Nini Barbakadze for Metal Magazine, “I really envisioned that I was going to spend my life doing that. There are lots of people who do that, and they can be very good, but really – you can just do that and die. You could never be as good as [Diego] Velázquez, and even if you are, it was done.”
Interestingly, Toor’s interest with the “mundane” comes from the illustrations he created from local ads found in Pakistan. He explains, “Ads as illustrations of aspiration, of people’s wishes were something that defined a society so completely for me that, in a place where identity is a constant subject for questioning and art, I couldn’t resist using them. Ads as reality improved, more vivid, more beautiful. These ads contained a lot of the seemingly mundane situations. I like to transform those seemingly mundane situations into something more prescient.”
Last year, just prior to the pandemic, Toor was approached by Ambika Trasi and Christopher Lew, two curators from the Whitney Museum. The pair had been following Toor for several years, having frequented a few of the artist’s openings. He figured they wanted to purchase a painting… however the reason for their visit was even more exciting.
Trasi and Lew asked Toor to be a part of the museum’s emerging artists’ program with the exhibition scheduled only in nine months. Although the time-frame was aggressive, Toor was more than thrilled for this opportunity. Titled “Salman Toor: How Will I Know,” the show is an assortment of fifteen recent paintings made on plywood. Painted between 2018 and 2020, the artwork is all part of a similar collective in a style that resembles old paintings that center around queer, brown men of South Asian decent.
Toor’s figures are a way for him to “play” with societal norms. The figures he paints are not necessarily unhappy; but they aren’t joyous, outgoing individuals. They are all subjected to a certain anxiety… perhaps it is because they are immigrants or perhaps it is because of their sexual orientation? Toor hopes that his works will help incorporate brown, queer men into “the language of the humanities.”
However Toor is quick to point out that his painted individuals are not real people, but rather figures based on figments of his imagination. Prior to painting additional works for the Whitney Museum exhibition, Toor delved deep into images from his childhood. His studio is filled with pictures that are tacked on his wall; and the pictures’ variety is astounding. On the wall are Indian and Pakistani soap opera stars from the 1970s and photographs of some of his friends’ parents from their college days.
Toor employs a special green shade in most of his paintings. Ranging in tone, the shade dominated many paintings in the show. He says (courtesy of Two Coats of Paint) that he sees green as a “completely aesthetic choice” that makes for a “sense of ambiance without being over-emotional,” and that green is “inviting and poisonous and glamorous.”
The ability of Toor to engage viewers from all walks of life is unusual and impressive. For the artist himself however, it is the warm feeling that his family and friends elicit that is the prize.