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“But if true exile is a condition of terminal loss, why has it been transformed so easily into a potent, even enriching, motif of modern culture? We have become accustomed to thinking of the modern period itself as spiritually orphaned and alienated, the age of anxiety and estrangement.”
—Edward Said, Reflections on Exile (2000)

Aicon Gallery is pleased to announce the second solo exhibition of Brooklyn and Lahore based artist Salman Toor’s most recent series of paintings, titled Resident Alien. Born in Lahore, Pakistan, Toor’s new work consists of a series of complex figurative paintings, of varying scale and style, delineated with Sufi poetry and ranging in subject from autobiographical constructs to Art History, Postcolonialism, and Pop Culture.

These new paintings show surreal gatherings of people, romances and adventures in imagined homelands and scenes of conflict in places designated as both East and West. Toor’s life and art traverse the boundaries between these two worlds, dismantling stereotypes and seeking to broaden perceptions on both sides of the global divide. In the artist’s own words: ‘For me painting is a process of self-definition, as an outsider in multiple worlds which become more and more entangled and complex.’ Historical ghosts of origin collide with scenes of leisure and repose, pointing to issues of exile, integration, and the cultural rituals that divide and unite us. At sad family dinner tables and imagined multiethnic communities, the paintings map out a space where personal and global concerns intersect. These vignettes evoke the fluid boundaries of identity and the anxieties of living in our post 9/11 world and revitalize the potentiality of the medium of painting.

Process is central to Toor’s work. Compositions are unplanned. Toor paints intuitively, from memory, embracing the surprise of the transformations he encounters as an image comes to life. Toor’s painting moves seamlessly between abstraction and representation. He uses text and figures to carve out a psychological space or site of fantasy, memory and deconstruction. The text consists of poetry as well as Persio-Arabic gibberish, memories of graffiti dribbled in alleyways and mosques, calligraphic protest banners and shop signs in Pakistan. These are peppered with elements of graphic design, comic strips and advertising as in the Sale! Pow! Boom! Signs, as well as thought and speech bubbles. The 17th century poems of Bulleh Shah, a wandering Sufi dervish from Punjab, and the contemporary poetry of exile by Hasan Mujtaba point to the shape-shifting nature of longing and belonging, a fruitful unmooring from communities of origin. Amid the diverse tableau vivant of Toor’s figures, apartment buildings sprouting out of metropolitan skylines are overlapped by silhouettes and contours of mosques and shrines, distorting our sense of place and time. In this way Toor’s paintings create an interface between seemingly divergent understandings of an over-connected world, developing societies seething in turmoil and the microcosms of cultures like Brooklyn’s art scene where Toor now works.

The scroll-like triptych titled Rooftop Party with Ghosts is reminiscent of the naive distortions of the Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar, with echoes of James Ensor, and George Grosz. Blurred apparitions that look like memories, but could be characters from multiple chapters of history, wander among gatherings of bohemian globalistas. The ghost of a soldier in a uniform resembling that of the British Indian army has a mysterious exchange with a coterie of urban intellectual types. They are amused by the wisdom or song of a crouching beggar or minstrel or prophet, resembling a cartoon from an Orientalist painting or ubiquitous photojournalism from the Middle East and South Asia. A disapproving matronly ghost hovers behind a pair of embracing lovers as a modish man in a ponytail smiles his Tom-and-Jerry smile, toying with a smartphone and lighting a joint. For Toor, these ‘ghosts’ serve as reverberating echoes of origins, ‘cultural baggage’, as well as enablers of disruption and reinvention of static ideas of self and belonging.

In Resident Aliens and Ghosts, young revelers take selfies and spill red wine in a gathering cloud of text, speech bubbles and the abstract forms of puddles and splashes of what looks like black oil which the artist sees as a physical form of guilt. At a distance a Mughal prince is shown a view by a coiffed Victorian lady resembling Jane Austen. In a group of works titled Newscaster, black oil splashes again, with television news anchors as harbingers of ominous accounts of international conflicts and crises. In smaller works, immigrants reminisce in their urban apartments, listening to traditional gazals on YouTube. They sit among stacks and collections of books on Postcolonial scholarship, contemporary art and fiction. In For Allen Ginsberg, avatars of global hobos ramble along towards an unknown destination with sacks of allegorical belongings and Marcel Duchamp’s wheel in tow. Swimming in the verses of Mujtaba’s poem, overlapping worlds host scenes of violence, historical fiction and divine revelation.

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