at Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC: Salmon Toor: How Will I Know (through 4 April 2021) and Vida Americana: Mexican Artists Remake American Art, 1925-1945 (through 31 January 2021)
Reviewed by Arabella Hutter von Arx
In two rooms on the ground floor of the Whitney Museum, a scattering of miniature brown men frolic around the walls, choreographed by Pakistani artist Salman Toor. Some dance, some light a cigarette, others whisper. Many do nothing but offer themselves to our gaze or that of their cellphone. Salman Toor, who admits to admiring Watteau and Gainsborough, has adorned his tableaux with a whole festival of baroque imagery: undulant mustaches and hair styles, collars that almost look like lace, a loose neckerchief, a large hat largely out of place.
During the Enlightenment, when broad shoulders and physical force were the undesirable attributes of the lower classes, dainty looks and precious attire were favored just as much for men as for women. This is how Toor paints his creatures, with overlarge innocent eyes, pencil-thin eyebrows and lips, so slight in body their lack of muscle tone would lose them any fight. But deformities unexpectedly shift this nimble baroque elegance into a diametrical different genre. The elfin figures are chastised with overlarge heads and hands, deformed limbs, ears fit for a bat, foreheads so short their ability to think seems dubious. From the Renaissance’s fantastic hybrids to the Troll Doll, Grotesque has enjoyed an inexhaustible popularity as it confirms the viewer, the buyer, the collector in their quality as humans, and in the superiority of their behavior and taste.
By painting his non white, queer subjects as grotesque, Toor cunningly steers the viewer into a position of amused voyeurism, homosexuality having long functioned as a titillating freak show for the sophisticated, and as a criminal deviance for the law. It is telling that Oscar Wilde, who met ostracism and eventually annihilation as a consequence of his sexual orientation, explored the same theme within a similar stylistic period. His historical fiction The Birthday of The Infanta tells the cruel story of a dwarf who endured mockery and rejection at the hands of the Spanish Court.
Grotesque creatures are by definition ‘other’: children, the very old, animals, hybrids, freaks, the poor, all show a repulsive lack of proportion. Most strikingly, Salman Toor’s noses break all records of dimensional norms. According to the artist, the young men depicted in the show are representations of himself, and he does have a long nose, but not that long. No one has such a long nose but for Cyrano de Bergerac or Pinocchio or the namesake by Gogol.
The nose is the most prominent feature of the face, the closest to other people, particularly if it’s too long, setting it up as a target for stigmatization: it suffers the most cosmetic surgeries of the face. The elongated appendage and the various disproportions, as well as the coarse brushwork, also nod at the satirical art of the 19th century — Cruikshank’s lampooning, the Regency effeminate dandies, Töpffer’s bourgeois. Except for a couple of nudes with the subject fondly selfying their absurd physique, Toor’s menagerie of bizarre, laughable clones are represented in groups in various contexts, such as living rooms, bars, the street. The format and dimensions resolutely position the work on show in genre painting, a corollary of the grotesque.
In 17th century and 18th century genre paintings, the rabble depicted carried out their sordid daily business: they played cards in dingy cabarets, sold sanguinolent animals at the market, caroused on their street corner. This animality in the form of unrestrained sexuality and potential violence offered a delightful contrast to the viewer’s sophistication as well as a safe frisson of fear and eroticism. Grotesque encourages condescension, but as modern viewers we know to suspect the superiority proposed by Toor. Instead, we might be led to question our position of normativeness, of preconception, of agency. Do these charming, harmless creatures deserve to endure not only ridicule but prejudice and oppression because they’re queer, because they’re brown, because they own little? In contrast to their baroque counterparts, Toor’s young men do not indulge coarse gratification of the senses in their mundane activities. On the contrary, they dance with grace or chat sweetly with each other. Their huddling appears to fend off the mean world they are otherwise surrounded in, such as the policemen looming threateningly over their illegitimacy. The scenes are offered to us frozen in the moment, a dancer crystallized in his spirited movement, a young man texting us across the effervescent socializing. Liberated from judgmental gazes, they find comfort, intimacy, and pleasure in each other’s company, their gentle goings-on not only endearing to the viewer, but enviable.
Salman Toor knows full well that things are not as simple as “us and them,” leading to a delicious irony. Not “all,” as goes the stereotype, Asians have drooping shoulders, nor “all” gay men large innocent eyes. And either, against said stereotypes, can actually be packed with muscles, whether Asian or gay. Some of the viewers are likely to be gay and of diverse ethnicities, and the men in the paintings are representations of the painter who has control by definition, and then is he subject or is he object? By challenging whether we see the subjects as “other,” or identify with them (tell me, for real, is my nose too long?), the artist forces us to explore our identity just as much, or even more, than he explores his own. While the ambiguity of the relative positions between the self portrait, the artist, and the viewer is nothing new in the history of art, Toor’s paintings present a different geometry. The figures do not picture a realistic image of the artist, and additionally they do not look at himself in the eye, as in a mirror. But you can’t paint yourself absolutely as “other” when you are, well, you. Toor winks at us, and also at himself, as he role-plays with his collection of cute toys at that most significant of games: life.
A queer artist originally from Pakistan, Salman Toor studied at Ohio Wesleyan. In the United States for the last twenty years, he has been integrating Western and Eastern schools of art in his work to various degrees. In this particular show, the influences from European tradition tip the scales, such as the 19th century treatment of light and volume, the various oil application techniques on canvas. A group of men lounging on a stoop, one wearing a toddler’s romper, calls to mind sentimental paintings of street urchins from the 19th century, and still on sale nowadays in Montmartre.
Puppy Play Date shows a composition similar to Gainsborough’s Two Shepherd Boys with Dogs Fighting, where two dogs fight viciously, watched by two bodacious youths, the poses stressing the symmetry between the animals and the boys. But the dogs in Toor’s painting — the white on top, the brown underneath in his reversed version — are enjoying a playful, possibly amorous moment, which the onlookers watch-on with a pensive respect. The head of one puppy worshipper is surrounded by a halo, while exhibiting overlarge ears. This figure — part Christ / part elf — delivers 100% adorability. A man with a messiah-like aura appears at the door of a shabby apartment in The Arrival. Is he bringing his host companionship, sex, spiritual salvation, all three?
The most obvious aspect lies in the ethnicity of the figures, subjected to mostly European techniques and styles. The Asian influence is rather subtle, at least to a Western eye. Of course, it’s not so simple as Eastern and Western either, when it comes to the multitude of cultures across the continents that have always watched and learned from each other. His palette of muted pastels, the green, the beige, the purples borrow the opulent elegance of 17th century Indian miniatures. The spontaneous brushwork has the freshness of folk art, the sweet naiveté of the sign paintings that advertise beauty salons and clothes stores throughout Asia. Additionally, the various elements in a painting are pieced together by contingency rather than with the purpose of compositional unity.
In Man with Face Creams and Phone Plug, the scarf that hangs from the feeble shoulders, the shirt, the pink pouch on the table, the brown, prickly face all have different colors, different textures, and very little to do with each other. The haphazard assembly joyously mocks the Western obsession with unifying principles, whether in terms of color or surface or shape. Even when a green light bathes a scene, a recurrent ploy, scattered patches of yellow hair, or a pink pair of pants blatantly defy the color code. These dashes of grotesque, baroque, folk art, satirical representation, Indian miniature build together a prism of contrasting artistic traditions, delivering a distinctive style that’s both engaging and provocative.
. . .
On the Whitney’s 5th floor, Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925-1945 comes as a shocking contrast to the Pakistani artist’s delicate offerings. The scale here is huge, the voices loud, the imagery imperious. Instead of an endearing vulnerability, these works display representations of power: virility, motherhood, nature, evil capitalism, activism, machines. While the formats and techniques run a wide gamut: murals, paintings, drawings, photos, prints, sculptures — are all represented — the content shows less variety. Rows of identical lilies, of identical workers, of machinery, run along the walls, larger than life. Except for famous political figures, faces are interchangeable, one for each archetype: indigenous people, rich men, victims of war. The works that picture a single human figure do not represent a particular individual but a symbol of repression or struggle.
Several paintings by David Alfaro Siquieros place an individual inside a cell-like space, a mother, a fighter, but is that figure imprisoned by its circumstances or by its narrow pigeonhole? His Zapata with its hollow eyes, Alfredo Ramos Martinez’s inexpressive La Malinche chill the soul in the same way as Nazi sculpture. These works of art have been created for a specific purpose: conveying a political message to its public. In the era that prompted the Vida Americana work, humanity dreamt up a beautiful utopia, on a gigantic scope: resources would be shared, everyone would have equal access to food, housing, education, health, wealth. This revolutionary dream’s attainment has always been defeated by a coercive system supported by propaganda. According to the French philosopher Catherine Chalier, ideologies seduce by offering simplistic and uniform answers to our basic human questions: how do I deal with social inequalities? With my fear of death? What is the purpose of my life?
The US has just endured four years under a fascist leader whom Chalier would describe as craving “to subjugate and blind others” by the use of reductive lies. Some of the artists subscribing to the collectivist ideology — Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, Mitchell Siporin — are way more simpatico than the fallen presidential idol, as they truly aspired to ethical values, and their work shows talent and esthetic sense.
Furthermore, a number of pieces in the show totally eschew the ideological falsities, and that includes the stunning pieces by Frida Kahlo (a self portrait of the best vintage, and a hieratic portrait of two women) and by Jackson Pollock (brilliantly demonstrating that the horizontal orientation and compositional homogeneity of his paintings were informed by murals, an art he studied under Siqueiros) the both of which do not deliver a simple dogma but the metaphysical questioning typical of their work.
However, much of the art in Vida Americana contributed to the lies, particularly that of Siqueiros who, incidentally, attempted to murder Trotsky, and of Martinez: no, not all men are masses of muscles, not all women need be mothers, not all machines mean progress, Lenin is not a venerable hero, not all people should think the same nor look the same. The Whitney proposes in a foreword that the mural art on show, with its values of equality and social justice, should enlighten our view of current politics. The questioning intimated by Salman Toor’s art, with its tumultuous perspectives and ambiguities, might be a better tool to reflect upon our world in all its complexity.
Work cited: Chalier, Catherine. Transmettre de générations en générations. Buchet Castel, 2008
Featured Image: Detail of Salmon Toor’s Four Friends (2019)
All images courtesy of The Whitney Museum of Art
Arabella Hutter von Arx is Paris and New York City Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Hutter von Arx is a writer with a background in film and TV production. While producing for the BBC, Channel 4, Gaumont, Bravo (Inside the Actors’ Studio) then working as the executive director of IQ, an international organization of producers, she contributed regularly articles for magazines and European newspapers. She devotes now all her time to writing, with a particular focus on the arts and on women’s issues.