Salman in his Bushwick, Brooklyn studio.

Cheap & Plastique’s Violet Shuraka interviews Brooklyn-based artist Salman Toor for issue #12. Portraits by Violet Shuraka. All artwork ©Salman Toor. See more of Salman’s work here.

C & P: You live and work in Brooklyn, NYC. How long have you been in the city and what brought you to New York originally?
Salman: I’ve been here for almost nine years now.
I came to NYC for school and to look for a job at a gallery in Chelsea after graduating from Ohio Weslyan in 2006 with BFA. I ended up doing marketing for a magazine called NY Art Magazine (that recently died down) and knew for sure that I never wanted to work in an office environment again.

C & P: You have maintained a studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn since 2011, have you witnessed a drastic change in the neighborhood over the past few years?
Salman: Oh yes. It’s like a creeping self conscious American Montmartre, spreading trade in a new disguise: Art.

C & P: You also spend time in Lahore, Pakistan (where you are from) every year. Do you have a studio there as well? Is there a big art community in Lahore?
Salman: A small, tightly-knit community, yes. It centers around government run school with a gorgeous colonial building. It’s called the National College of Art or NCA, where new talent is fostered and where most teachers are ambitious artists who have at least a local cult following and sometimes international recognition.
I do have a studio in Lahore. Space and time are cheaper there so I have a cavernous, light-filled set-up there.

C & P: The current body of work in your studio consists mainly of figurative oil paintings. How long have you been painting the figure? What first interested you in painting a subject that has been revisited again and again throughout art history?
Salman: I’ll always make pictures of the body in some sense. I didn’t choose to visit the subject. I was always drawing in school notebooks for fun then I became very good at it, making pictures of the body became almost a ritual for me.

C & P: You painting technique calls to mind the old masters of Europe, could you talk a bit about your decision to depict the figure, generally a subject of Western art, through your non-Western eye in this Old Master style?
Salman: I think that was the result of me, as someone from the Third World, arriving in a museum of the First World, which was filled with an unfathomable number of gorgeous pictures.
I was overwhelmed by this experience and felt something akin to rapture, totally inspired by the largely Christian pictures, which made me want to compete with the hundreds of dead aesthetes!

C & P: Does your work inform a certain kind of audience or do you think your work can be seen, understood, and appreciated by anyone?
Salman: The more specific narrative pieces work with certain scenarios and kinds of people that are very local to South Asia so I believe the paintings create more magic when they are shown there. Otherwise I feel the pictures are totally accessible to everyone, because, in the end, they are about the yummy-ness of paint and surface.

C & P: Who are the people in your paintings? Do you ever paint from a live model? Or do you utilize imagery of figures from advertising, film, commercials, and photography as your subjects? Do you feel that a painting created by observing a live model differs greatly from one painted using photographic or collaged sources?
Salman: Yes, I think the kind of figurative painting I like, whether its Realist or Expressionist, is better achieved with a live model. A photograph is already two dimensional (and don’t even get me started on the uselessness of Photorealism).
The object and the eye keep shifting slightly from one glance to the next with a live model. Though I’ve now moved on to a kind of painting in which I don’t use any source material at all.

C & P: Do you ever paint self portraits?
Salman: I have in the past. At this point I’m so used to my own features I have to struggle to paint faces that don’t look like mine.

C & P: Is there a narrative running through your work?
Salman: Yes. There are several narratives:
a) the idiosyncrasy of being from a Post-Colonial culture, having the added baggage of being from a culture that is perceived to be in a state of decay or turmoil, the baggage and profound understanding that comes from imagining myself as a kind of representative of that part of the world and mingling the best of what’s happening in Bushwick with that of Lahore and Karachi.
b) making fun of the wish to be a painter (in the European sense) from South Asia. Toying with the idea, the need to be progressive, the need for beauty/ aesthetic.
c) the boredom and excitement of being an artist, and working in Bushwick and living in the East Village.

C & P: Your show “The Happy Servant,” at Aicon Gallery in May of 2013, was the first body of work that I saw of yours. I really enjoyed the humor in these paintings—glamour and poverty co-existing side by side, everyone depicted wearing large smiles. Do you think your sense of humor or satire regarding the class-divides in the region is something shared amongst South Asians in general or is this more of a subversive way of handling the subject that could possibly be upsetting to some people?
Salman: It isn’t shared at all. it’s completely ignored because it’s useless (profitless) to most people. For those pictures I wanted to mine the haunting qualities of a smile to allude to a darker sensibility.

C & P: Your paintings from this series seem to be about fantasies, both as lived by well-off individuals and as dreamed by those of the lower-classes. What cultural forces do you think inform these two sets of fantasies? Do they come out of Bollywood or Western-centric advertising marketed towards South Asians? How do they differ from one another and do they go both ways? That is to say, are the servants and those they serve both projecting things onto each other that may not be their actual realties?
Salman: Totally. Both fantasies are informed by South Asian fiction/ literature, contemporary novels like Daniyal Mueenuddin’s Other Rooms, Other Wonders and Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke. A lot of the little vignettes I pick up are from books when they are not autobiographical. I consider the resulting paintings to be fantasies, ideas, not related to the real objective world.

C & P: Spending as much time in Pakistan as you do, could you talk about the violence and social and political deterioration there that seem to be getting worse every week? Do you think there is still hope for open discussion and secularism or is the country reaching a tipping point from which it might not come back for some time? What do you think this entails for the future of visual art, specifically in a city like Karachi? Will there be a point where artists are the next voices under threat of being silenced?
Salman: Everyone is under threat there. But all is made myopic and confusing and beside the point with the all pervasive desperation of poverty . There’s a new tipping point for violence every two years in Pakistan and I think this will flounder for a decade before anything becomes concrete. This should be a good time for artists to show ambition, and compete and debate and bring different kinds of people together to create the kind of classless and heady atmosphere which fosters debate about contemporary art, resistance to tyranny, liberty.
I don’t think artists will be in any more danger than any other vocal person in the public domain. Cartoonists and satirists are people always in danger there. In general, contemporary art is usually too subtle, or too clever, or nonsensical to offend a hundred-and-fifty or so ignorant people or the sharp-eyed intelligence agencies.

C & P: Could you describe your process when beginning a new piece? Do you create a preliminary drawing(s) first or do you begin working directly on the canvas?
Salman: At the moment, I approach a primed canvas which is under-painted with a usually olive green acrylic with tubs of different colored oil paint. I have a vague idea of the picture I want to make. I draw with the brush without a preliminary drawing on the surface of the canvas. Sometimes I have separate preliminary drawings on paper.

C & P: Currently you have a bunch of medium sized works in your studio and one very large piece. How did you decide to work on this larger canvas and how is it different working at this size rather than at a more human scale? Do you feel that your painting style has loosened up when working so large? Do you think you will eventually do more work at this size?
Salman: On a larger scale I use my elbow instead of my wrist to draw and paint. The decisions made on this scale are definitely more impromptu. I like the risk and excitement of that. I think I’ll always oscillate between large and precious scale.

C & P: Describe a studio day. Is there a certain time of the day when you work best and are most productive? Do you have certain habits that you stick to in regards to your art making schedule?
Salman: I kind of meditate with iced coffee on the train from my place in East Village to my studio in Bushwick, thinking about what I’m going to do, what it will look like, what will the 20 or so paintings look like together up on walls, what feeling will they evoke when they’re done. I’m a morning person so anything I do in the morning is the best, most efficient thing I do all day. After lunch it slowly goes downhill. I haven’t spoken to my parents in too long, or I have to run to the bank. The best studio days are when I have a stretch of at least 10 hours of complete freedom from rent, errands, and especially phone calls.

C & P: Do you feel more influenced by looking at the work of other painters and artists or do you feel that you are more stimulated by the massive amount of visual information you are exposed to on a daily basis in the city, through advertising, the internet, television, etc?
Salman: I respond to both, I feel.

C & P: Who are some painters you admire whose influence might not be readily apparent in your work?
Salman: I really like Jules de Balincourt, some of Hernan Bas and Ahmed Alsoudani’s pictures.

C & P: What projects are you working on now? Where can we see your work in the near future?
Salman: I’m working for a show of paintings at Aicon Gallery this fall. The ideas are still building up so let’s see where it goes.

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