Of life and other demons

April 21, 2019

If we sift through the outer layer of Salman Toor’s paintings we realise they deal with a certain type of madness, excessiveness and exaggeration that is experienced by many, regardless of physical location

Of life and other demons

Can there be a ‘new’ painting? The art form has been in practice since old times. It actually originated in the prehistoric caves of Lascaux and Altamira. Although artists have tried to devise new techniques, mediums and methods, but painting is so old that even the claim that ‘painting is dead’ was made in the last decades of the last century. The phrase was actually coined in 1839, when French painter, Paul Delaroche, on seeing Daguerreotype (photographic prints), declared ‘from today, painting is dead’.

However, this question haunts the cultural mainstream more than the periphery. The latter may have reached modernism through a shortcut, but here the distant past and present exist simultaneously.

Painting can be new only if it brings a new way to look at the (age-old) world around us and a fresh approach towards the medium. The New Paintings of Salman Toor (from April 12-22, 2019, at the ‘O’ Art Space, Lahore) seem to be performing the two tasks perfectly well. A few points are especially noteworthy. The exhibition does not have a fancy name, and it does not have a curator who for the one-person exhibition in the small spaces of our private galleries is an unnecessary addition anyway.

Creative individuals have faced this criticism about their work being confined to their own limited world -- a room, family, neighbourhood maybe. Writers’ work is shared by millions across classes, cultures and continents; only because they pull through the essence of human experience beyond ‘local’ details. Visual artists, on the other hand, often have limited and exclusive viewership. Yet, some of them are asked this question about being selective in the choice of imagery. This is a superficial consideration because an artist would create something close to his heart, and what comes out is a code to decipher reality, entirely or partially.

In that sense, when we look at the canvases of Toor, we gather notes on the life of a person who moves in a specific section of society. Paintings like ‘After Party’ and ‘Dancing to Whitney’ may be representative images for many, but if we sift through the outer layer of the story and look at the content, we realise these works deal with a certain type of madness, excessiveness and exaggeration that is experienced by many, regardless of their physical location. The search for something unknown, that our sanity does not allow us to pursue, is what we need in order to maintain our creativity and sensitivity.

A person busy with his laptop; two men dancing at the back; a couple chatting; two separate groups of three figures each engaged in conversations; two boys positioned on a wall playing music and others amused looking up -- all these do not denote normality. They denote an extremity that, like art, is daring and dangerous. One feels Toor tries to dig the segment of madness in our usual behaviour. A decent banker, an elegant designer, a respected writer, an intelligent critic may all turn wild after dinner.

The recent paintings of Toor are not pictures from a social WhatsApp group. These excavate the psyche of human interaction, especially in our present circumstances that are clouded by all kinds of craziness: superstition, black magic and ghost stories. The painter has pointed out on this dimension -- rather disdain of life -- by drawing a group of three men around a table with a candle and a few others standing at a distance in ‘Ghost Story’; a work that has multiple connotations: with séances or recounting of an unnatural tale at the end of a party. In ‘Palm Reader’ too, one recognises a man trying to interpret lines of another person’s hand. This palm-reading is a fixation for someone unsure of his destiny and decisions.

Apparently, the paintings of Toor are situated inside a house, but these address larger issues of our existence. The madness, usually considered an individual problem, is a common deviation among a larger community. Thus, we seek supernatural support, through recalling spirits, decoding fate or just being in the frenzy of a moment. This state surrounds us, overpowers us and obliterates us.

In these paintings, one can recognise the boundary between sanity and sentimentality. One can detect references and suggestions about an inner self; a soul tormented not purely by an internal crisis but due to a societal condition. In this aspect, Toor reminds one of Van Gogh, especially his ‘Night Café’ (1888), of haunted characters captured in the middle of the night.

The manner of painting also connects Toor with Van Gogh. The Dutch painter depicted his subject -- landscape, flower, human figures -- as an extension of his state of mind. In the choice of transcribing his subject, Toor too offers more than a mere representation of the outer world. Like Van Gogh, his brush strokes, palette and composition convey more than what to see or sense. It is about a few personages having a happy time. Intriguingly, large and looming shadows on the wall disclose the mindscape of these individuals. However, the way Toor settles and paints them, they appear the embodiment of Janet Malcolm’s book title: Nobody’s Looking at You.

So if we shift from the position of a voyeur, we read more than what’s on the surface, as the nature of his brush stroke reminds one of writing. In the past, Toor has displayed paintings solely based on text (‘Short Stories’, October 2017, Canvas Gallery, Karachi). But in the present show, the text has turned into texture; an inter-play of brush mark that reveals an invisible bond between human beings in various situations.

That bond is best described the way Toor composes his characters. E. H. Gombrich observes that the masters of Renaissance (mainly Leonardo da Vinci) arranged their figures in a way they appeared natural, yet they were organised for aesthetic reasons. In the same scheme, Toor’s individuals look informal but are composed to indicate the intricacies of relationships between human beings.

This boils down to the link between two humans, the eternal couple, that emerges frequently, in the form of ‘Best Friends’, ‘Untitled’, ‘The Palm Reader III’, ‘The Singers’, but in other compositions too with a couple fixed in the corner of a canvas. This could be a reference to the relationship between two human beings, or the bond between us and the demons we love to live with.

Of life and other demons