At the Whitney Museum of American Art, Salman Toor’s first solo exhibition delves into diasporic and queer identity.
Artist Salman Toor’s first solo exhibition “How Will I Know” — which opened Nov. 13, 2020, at Whitney Museum and runs through April 4 — is a tribute to those with identities that escape boundaries and binaries.
Toor was born in 1983 in Lahore, Pakistan, and lived in the South Asian country for the first 14 years of his life before moving to Ohio. He studied painting and drawing at Ohio Wesleyan University and eventually landed in New York City, where he earned his M.F.A. at Pratt Institute.
Yet, even without this knowledge of Toor’s transatlantic identity, there is a semi-autobiographical thread that culls together his 15 paintings at first glance: A figure that resembles the young Pakistani artist is mirrored in many of the images set in airports, New York City apartments and busy gay bars. Viewers get the sense Toor is painting what he knows.
“What he’s addressing in the work — in terms of the diaspora, in terms of negotiating different spaces and cultures — is very much an American experience,” Whitney curator Christopher Lew told ALL ARTS of the decision to include Toor’s work in the American art museum. “The majority of the people here come from elsewhere, and more and more so, people are traveling back and forth between different places and negotiating that.”
Much has been written about hybrid identities: the tug-of-war that happens between conflicting cultures, the special anxiety in passport-protected spaces, and the inherent Othering, no matter where one with a hyphenated identity goes. These themes are expanded in “How Will I Know,” where canvases displaying gatekeeping and surveillance are interspersed between vignettes of freedom found in safe spaces where the in-between identity is welcomed.
“I think it’s such a celebration to really be able to pick and choose, and include symbols of all the cultures that you live within, and without it having a kind of hierarchy,” said Whitney curatorial assistant Ambika Trasi, who co-organized the exhibition.
In “Bar Boy” (2019), celebration unfolds as the protagonist echoed throughout the exhibition blends into a sea of bright greens and queer bodies at a gay bar. Men with long hair in stylish clothing lean into each other over drinks or dance together along the perimeter of the painting. Staring at his phone, the figure resembling Toor is wearing a soft smile; there is a sense of fun, peace and belonging.
But in “Man With Face Creams and Phone Plug” (2019), Toor illustrates the careful eye watching brown men within airports from the perspective of an immigration officer. Gone is the warm embrace of emerald and forest greens. In its place, muted browns and grays color the painting as the mustached man gazes down at his belongings, defeat captured in his expression. Wisps of Toor’s signature green stand out in the man’s beard, on his shirt, as an earring and nail polish, reminding viewers of his humanity beyond the moment of patrol.
Similar to race and diasporic identity, queerness is also negotiated in the context of space. In some of Toor’s paintings, the queer brown man is policed, confronting potential danger in “Car Boys” (2019) as officers in South Asia surround the men in a brown-and-gray car. Greens are only seen along the edges of the painting, the furthest points away from the subjects at the center of the piece. In other works, the queer brown man is embraced by his cohort of friends, as seen in “The Star” (2019) where he is lavished with beauty products, the vibrant green of his friends’ shirts popping against the brown-and-gray backdrop.
“[It’s] like a third space … where all of these references exist simultaneously,” Trasi said of Toor’s greens, which Toor describes as both “glamorous” and “poisonous” in an essay written by the curatorial assistant. “It’s almost like it reflects his own space that he’s creating for himself as a painter.”
Thus, the narrative of the queer brown man as seen in Toor’s exhibition — capturing both the festivity and the marginalization found in these facets of identity — ultimately brings this “third space” to the Whitney. Utilizing his fine arts training, Toor is able to pull in tools and techniques found in the Western canon of art history to share insights into identities otherwise not seen in the canon — and now within a major American art institution, no less.
“I think some part of this emerging generation of artists who are taking on figurative painting are really expanding what figurative painting can do, and in terms of what subject matters can be addressed, and from what perspective,” Lew said of the art-historical Easter eggs found in the paintings. (An example mentioned in Trasi’s essay: Édouard Manet’s “Olympia”  versus Toor’s “Bedroom Boy” .)
“Salman is so in tune with social media as a tool, and the phone as a tool … in his paintings,” Trasi said. “[With ‘Bedroom Boy’], I was thinking of how a selfie can become infinitely replicated and seen through not just one gaze, but many, many people who have the ability to look at it on their phones, and what happens to ownership of that image. But I think there’s also a celebration of the selfie, too. That figure seems to be experiencing desire and a real freedom in that image.”
Toor meets ranks of artists across disciplines who cultivate the third space by infusing their art with some degree of personal narrative. Trasi is reminded of Korean-American writer Alexander Chee’s “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,” in which Chee discusses characters as “ciphers” — a place where he is able to decode and examine his own experience. But even thinly veiled as fiction, there is vulnerability in the act of sharing these intimate stories, a point underscored by Toor’s exhibition’s title.
“We asked Salman early on: What songs do you imagine your figures dancing to?” Trasi recalled. “He mentioned Whitney Houston and ‘How Will I Know.’ And when we looked at the lyrics, there [was] just something about the vulnerability of that question — that anxiety, and doubt, and desire.”
“Salman Toor: How Will I Know” is on view at Whitney Museum through April 4. To learn more, visit the museum’s website.
Top Image: Detail of "Tea," 2020 Oil on canvas, 42 × 57 in. (106.7 × 144.8 cm) Collection of Graham Steele and Ulysses de Santi. © Salman Toor. Image courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.