Salman Toor | Creating the safe and magical spaces by narrative paintings

Salman Toor | Creating the safe and magical spaces by narrative paintings

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“By creating private, deeply comfortable spaces, I hope to give dignity and safety to the boys in my paintings.” — Salmon Toor

Salman Toor | Image courtesy of the artist, Bryan Derballa and Juxtapoz Magazine

Salman Toor (b. 1983 in Lahore, Pakistan) is a painter, currently living and working in New York. His figurative paintings combine academic technique and a quick, sketch-like style, depicting intimate, quotidian moments in the lives of fictional young, brown, queer men ensconced in contemporary cosmopolitan culture. Toor’s paintings consider vulnerability within contemporary public and private life, and the notion of community in the context of queer, diasporic identity. Recurring color palettes and references to art history heighten the emotional impact of Toor’s paintings and add a fantastical element to his narratives drawn from lived experience.

Salman Toor, Mehfil/Party, 2019 | Image courtesy of the artist

Toor studied painting and drawing in university. In 2006, he graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. In 2009, he received a Master of Fine Arts from Pratt Institute, Brooklyn. Toor’s work is currently being exhibited in the 60th Venice Biennale. His solo exhibitions have been held in Whitney Museum of American Art (2020-2021); Baltimore Museum of Art (2022); M WOODS, Beijing, China (2023); Art Gallery of Western Australia (2024). His work is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Whitney Museum of American Art; Walker Art Center; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Baltimore Museum of Art; RISD Museum; Tate, London, UK; Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden; Pinault Collection, Paris, France; M WOODS, Beijing, China.


Toor’s narrative paintings

“I really did not think at all about whether the meaning in these paintings would be coherent to others. I just thought of making something very straightforward to me.” Operating between academic painting and illustration, and between fiction and autobiography became his unique mode of working.

Salman Toor | Image courtesy of the artist, Stefan Ruz and Galerie Magazine

In his academic painting trainings, Toor spent years studiously poring over and copying the works of Rococo, Baroque, and Neoclassical-era artists including Caravaggio, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, and Jean-Antoine Watteau, incorporating their styles into his own original compositions. Toor also became deeply knowledgeable about the works of modern Pakistani and Indian painters such as Colin David, Bhupen Khakhar, and Amrita Sher-Gil. When Toor is constricted in his practice, he wants to “find some language that would feel consistent and flow out naturally”. He sees through art historical lens and sees through the richness and vulnerability of a brown man’s sexually diverse, diasporic identity.

Salman Toor, Untitled, 2017 | Image courtesy of the artist and Whitney Museum of American Art

Toor teases out the interplay between freedom and alienation experienced in western metropolises. His works depict the imagined lives of young men of South Asian-birth, displayed in close range in either South Asia and New York City fantasized settings. Painted from memory and imagination, Toor chronicles intimate views that fluctuate between the worlds of queer boys and Brown immigrant men.


The safe and magical spaces in his paintings

Toor’s first green painting was created in early 2019, using green to depict “a space of self; for enhancing the self”.  Toor has been using green to make shadows in his paintings. Emerald green is glamorous color and something nocturnal, inviting Toor to explore that color for a while.

Salman Toor, Four Friends, 2020 | Image courtesy of the artist

“One of the things I like about green is that it can be very hot and very cold. Blue is cold, and it belongs to Picasso. With green, there’s a flickering light that’s nocturnal, and poisonous (think of absinthe), and also jewel-like—emeralds and jade.” He reserved the color for nighttime revelry scenes, such as Four Friends (2019) and Bar Boy (2019), in which characters dance and embrace in cramped New York apartments or in LGBTQ bars and safe spaces.

Salman Toor, Bar Boy, 2019 | Image courtesy of the artist

With kisses and embraces articulated in soft, sensuous brushstrokes, Downtown Boys (2020) depicts an intimate moment of safety and bliss. In this painting that was created during the time of pandemic, the domestic spaces in which marginalized bodies are free to feel, touch, dance, and experience release.

Salman Toor, Downtown Boys, 2020 | Image courtesy of the artist and Sunpride Foundation

In the artist’s statement, Toor mentioned that “the painting shows an interior scene of revelry among friends and lovers. The central figure reaches out in a welcoming, serpentine gesture to two embracing figures, their limbs intertwined. Behind them on the lower left side is a tender kiss shared by a couple on a bean bag. With this painting I wanted to summon a sense of closeness and romance in this time without certainties and much isolated self reflection.”