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Emerald Encounters: Salman Toor at the BMA

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Within the deluge of gay male artists creating figurative work these days, Salman Toor stands apart from the crowd. Toor is complicated—and that’s a good thing. He’s a queer person of color, born in Lahore, Pakistan, and now living in America; his paintings are autobiographical yet steeped in references to classical paintings, and executed with the casual air of an illustrator in his sketchbook. Toor doesn’t use models or photographs as references for his paintings, relying instead on small sketches, memory, and imagination. 

In No Ordinary Love, the artist’s second institutional solo exhibition, now on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Toor’s separateness and distinction are depicted quite literally in his painting The Latecomer. A lone young man walks toward the middle of a bar while the other patrons stand clustered and preoccupied. The protagonist, dressed in white, is cast in stark relief against the rich and glossy emerald, celadon, and sea greens of the room, as if he appeared in this homogeneously-hued world by some twist of fate. Is standing in contrast with the world around him delightful or dangerous? At the moment, just one figure in the bar seems to notice the latecomer, a man in the foreground offering a mystery cocktail along with his stare.

 

Salman Toor, The Latecomer, 2021, oil on panel

 

Salman Toor, Fag Puddle with Candle, Shoe and Flag, 2022, oil on canvas. Installed in BMA's European gallery as part of Salman Toor: No Ordinary Love
This strained, surreal, tragic-yet-impassioned relationship with love thematically underscores much of the work in Toor’s show, which focuses on how love—through the lens of a queer man from a Muslim cultural background—shapeshifts within the contexts of family, friends, sexual desire, and self-identity.
Laurence Ross

Though the influences in Toor’s work may not be immediately obvious, the artist takes inspiration from historical European, American, and South Asian painting. He also investigates what happens when those traditions are contorted—much as the noodle-like limbs of his figures—to highlight the viewpoint of his manifold identities.

Toor nods to the Baroque period with his own stark lighting, rich color, and dramatic poses, but his brushstrokes are often wide, long, and loose, resonating with the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings throughout the Cone galleries that house all but one of his works. There is a flatness to Toor’s landscape works within the 40-some paintings and drawings that comprise this show, reminiscent of panoramic South Asian compositions. But the overflowing abundance characteristic of the Rococo style is present in green-washed jumbles of limp limbs, rags, feather boas, shoes, black trash bags, and clown noses. These piles are a recurrent motif Toor affectionately names “fag puddles.” (This joie de vivre has a dark sense of humor.)

The most massive example of these puddles hangs across from Sir Anthony van Dyck’s Rinaldo and Armida (1629), a Baroque painting in the BMA’s European galleries that tells the story of a Muslim witch with designs to kill a Christian soldier, a plan ultimately thwarted by the fact that she falls in love with him. This strained, surreal, tragic-yet-impassioned relationship with love thematically underscores much of the work in Toor’s show, which focuses on how love—through the lens of a queer man from a Muslim cultural background—shapeshifts within the contexts of family, friends, sexual desire, and self-identity.

Toor created Fag Puddle with Candle, Shoe and Flag in direct response to the van Dyck painting. The central figure, a Brown boy with blond hair, tries for a sensual, sexual moment with the dismembered lower body of another man amidst further mayhem: a high heel held aloft by a hairy leg, the torso of a sailor, a long string of beads, a prep school tie, a tube sock, a tombstone, and a decapitated head in a vitrine. The flag perched atop the pile might be a signal of surrender, a banner for battle, or a marker to label these Brown and queer bodies as victims of past violence. To the side of the puddle, a cellphone mounted on a tripod satirically suggests how this scene of intimate passion and pain is captured and put on display for our viewing pleasure.

 

Salman Toor, Over His Shoulder, 2021, oil on canvas. © Salman Toor; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York. Photo by Farzad Owrang
Salman Toor, Crying Boy with Candle, 2021, oil on canvas. © Salman Toor; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York. Photo by Farzad Owrang

Responding to historical works had long been part of Toor’s practice, and it aligns with the BMA’s mission to create dialogue between its permanent collection and contemporary artists. The juxtaposition of Toor’s painting looming opposite van Dyck in the European gallery is jarring, like a glitch in time. And like anything that shocks our sense of normalcy, we can choose to either close our eyes or take a closer look.

In one of the three main rooms of the exhibition, Toor asks us to take a closer look at scenes of gay boyhood that, for better or worse, are commonplace: watching a mother put on her makeup; standing naked in front of a dressing room mirror trying on a necklace; hiding a lover from family; feeling more at home with the women in a family than the men; sensing a father’s distant assessment of his effeminate son. Considering the show’s title, No Ordinary Love—borrowed from a Sade track about a strained relationship with love itself—these quotidian scenes also acquire an acute sadness. Toor grew up in Pakistan in the 1980s and ‘90s, and in some ways, what these family paintings show is that many of the challenges of growing up gay transcend continents and cultures. This relationship to love may not be ordinary, but it is certainly a recognizable refrain of gay narratives.

Contemporary queer narratives are changing, and though the pace varies depending upon one’s place in the world, television has chosen to fast-forward. Freeform’s wildly popular Schitt’s Creek takes place in a small American town where, miraculously and unexplained, there is no homophobia. Netflix’s Heartstopper, which created so many instant fans that a LEGO set might be in the works, centers its narrative on two British boys who fall in love despite the fact that one of them is a straight rugby player when the show begins. These worlds in which gay love has indeed become ordinary still read as fantasy—especially for those of us born in the ‘80s and before.

 

Salman Toor: No Ordinary Love at the BMA, 2022
Toor’s intimate depictions of gay sex prove that what happens in the bedroom does not necessarily stay in the bedroom.
Laurence Ross

Painting, however, still asks the viewer to slow down. The content of Toor’s work is diverse enough to hold sorrow and joy, pain and comfort, tears and laughter together in the same space. Works such as The Inheritors and Stone Throwers focus on isolation and violence; The New Jacket, in which a young man revels in the thrill of modeling a look for a group of friends, stands in stark juxtaposition; Three Friends in a Cab shows a moment of queer comfortability as the characters are shuttled safely through a city at night. 

These contradictory emotions are not divided from one another but integrated into the fabric of queer existence, even more so for a queer person of color. Intersectionality refers to the interconnected experiences of being disadvantaged due to one’s race, gender, and sexuality among a spectrum of other identities. Looking at the breadth of work in Toor’s solo show—curated by Asma Naeem, the museum’s interim co-director and The Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown Chief Curator—this intersectionality also seems to have resulted in a myriad of interwoven emotions that might be difficult to categorize but can be seen and felt through the paintings nonetheless.

 

Salman Toor, Pillow Fight, 2022, oil on linen. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York. Photo by Farzad Owrang
Salman Toor, Dad and Son, 2020, oil on panel

There is a layered humor to these pieces, dark and tragicomic. Pillow Fight features two naked men engaged in what appears to be playful wrestling in a tangle of bedding, presumably after a more sexually intimate moment. (A striped athletic sock drooping off the bed very much takes the shape of a discarded condom.) This scene echoes the pose of the archangel Michael slaying the dragon, though in Toor’s depiction, Michael is a gay Brown boy and the dragon is a lover with decidedly lighter skin.

This is an image of inverted social power structures as much as it is an image of lighthearted eroticism. The painting isn’t political or playful so much as it is both simultaneously. Toor’s intimate depictions of gay sex prove that what happens in the bedroom does not necessarily stay in the bedroom. Sometimes what happens in the bedroom is a romp, and sometimes that romp is also a political statement. Does this make gay play itself a type of work or labor or burden? And if so, what would it look like for a queer person of color to be truly liberated?

Dad and Son is perhaps the piece that remains the most inscrutable. Something about this painting goes beyond the trope of the complex relationship between a father and his gay son. The father cradles his naked son in his lap, gently supporting his head. The father’s expression is contemplative as the son reaches a hand upward toward his father’s face. The boy is on a cloth that is laid open rather than swaddling him—which makes sense as this boy is more preadolescent than infant.

There seems to be no easily available narrative context for the scene. However, the emotional resonance lands: the boy’s vulnerability in the face of the father’s gaze, and the father’s desire to nurture and support the boy in this pre-pubescent stage of life before sexuality becomes manifest. This painting might take place in those last moments before ordinary fatherly love for his son either dissipates or transforms into something extraordinary as the light of his sexuality begins to shine.

 

*****

Salman Toor: No Ordinary Love is on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art through October 23, 2022.

 

Art images courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York; photos by Farzad Owrang. Installation photos courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art

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