It is difficult to decide upon the most important feature in the art of Salman Toor. Figures or background? Narrative or content? His way of applying paint? Perhaps all of this.
His recent solo exhibition, Short Stories (Oct 17-26, 2017, Canvas Gallery, Karachi) affirms his position as an important contemporary painter. A gallery in Pakistan or an artist’s studio is full of canvases with themes of all sorts: landscapes, portraits, figure arrangements, abstract compositions. Likewise in the annual degree shows of art institutions. The difference between them lies in putting paint on a surface and using the medium in an intelligent, imaginative and potent manner.
Salman Toor belongs to a select league of contemporary painters who create their works in a manner that the viewer is seduced with the presence of paint, and the way its multiple possibilities are invented and realised. Apart from the content and imagery, one enjoys the pleasure of painterly quality. In fact, this characteristic distinguishes him from numerous dabblers who merely fill a surface with ‘colour’ and not ‘paint’ it. In the brief history of Pakistani art, the names of Zahoor ul Akhlaq and Khalid Iqbal come to mind who, despite their separate visual materials were admired alike for their sensitive surfaces and sophisticated execution.
The ability to endow one’s work with that formal feature is not something that is acquired at a school. It is just there like other personality traits. One can learn the method of drawing and techniques of art-making but in most cases these lack vitality. Only a person born with this talent can excite by his or her delicacy of touch, delightful arrangement of colour and superb layering of marks — elements that turn into a means to engage with the artwork on various levels.
Salman Toor’s Paintings from his solo exhibition are the expression of a person who is not focused on only one dimension in his art. Because more than the sensitive and sensory — almost sensuous — encounter with his oil on canvas, it is his ‘subject’ and construction of images that astonish and impress.
If one compares his imagery with many of his contemporaries, one finds a stark difference in terms of how he builds his pictorial material. On the surface, you see scenes of animal sacrifice, school children, servants in domestic settings. But underneath these ‘events’ or ‘pictures’, one detects the superb mind of a painter who, like the great artists of the Renaissance, strives for a composition that seems effortless and is yet complex and visually compelling.
For instance, in a series of works with adolescent students, one notices how Toor arranges his figures, who are either in a brawl (‘The Playground’ and ‘The Playground II’), or are sitting in classroom with one boy standing on his desk (‘A Punishment’). Small details — such as an abandoned shoe, a discarded bag, books left with fluttering open pages, parts of school stationery, sections of furniture, views of background buildings, distant figures and main protagonists — confirm an extraordinary skill in rendering, and incredible ability of formulating a complex image.
In the school views, especially in ‘The Playground’, the composition of human figures seems so real and lyrical at the same time, it’s almost effortless. Only if you are a stubborn critic or an eager art teacher do you try to separate limbs, arms, torsos, and personal possessions in a painting. But in his canvases, all are kneaded into a harmonious scheme — offering a depth of space with the introduction of light and trees that belong to this region and at the same time echo the classical sceneries from European art (you do wonder about the genesis, nationality or passport of trees that have been crossing continents for centuries!). This practice that continued till the popularity of plein air painting, particularly the art of Impressionism, led to a more casual and natural gathering of figurative elements. Compared to that tradition, Toor carefully composes his models, objects and backdrops; so what we see is not just a transitory scene, but an eternal reality — something that can be described in the words of Cezanne as ‘the art of museums’.
A similar approach towards solving the problem of random or arranged human figures (which according to E.H. Gombrich has been a concern in European art, with its best example in ‘The Last Supper’ by Da Vinci, in which the movements of twelve disciples appear abrupt and sudden, yet carefully calculated and composed) is evident in his other works also. Salman Toor joins human figures in interaction with each other or against backdrops which look spontaneous but are tightly constructed. This scheme of composition can be witnessed and enjoyed in works dealing with ritual sacrifice (‘Empty Plot’ and ‘Untitled’), or characters inside a room (‘The Request’, ‘Sleeping Maulvi’ and ‘Housekeeper’).
One ponders on the link between various paintings in this exhibition. Even though it is not necessary to find or seek one, because human beings are not programmed entities which produce predictable stuff, yet in the works which portray school boys, butchers and their helpers, or just kids interacting with each other, one can trace the presence of violence, either towards a fellow pupil or another living being (an animal that is slaughtered and skinned!). In both cases, the element of violence is covert.
In Toor’s canvases, one detects violence of another kind, with servants looking stealthily at the wallet or at a winning cup (‘Flower Arrangement’ and ‘Housekeeper’). This delineates the distance between classes and how possessing a fat wad of currency notes can be a matter of inviting desolation that may lead to aggression. Yet the work is subtle and suggestive and one can just guess/presume, without being too certain.
In the same way, his other works from the solo show, a kind of blobs with sharp edges and filled with texts (all titled ‘Boom’), also refer to the school text and prescribed curriculum. In these pieces (oil on panel with varying dimensions), Toor again indicates a system of education that conditions a person in several imperceptible ways.
Amid proud proclamations about the death of painting, Salman Toor saves the genre with his delightful canvases which remain before your eyes, in your mind and soul, long after you’re back to your life, work and words.