Painted in 2019, The Palm Reader III is an intimately-observed example of Salman Toor’s celebrated figurative practice. From rich, tactile brushstrokes, rendered in a muted palette of ochre and dusky pink, two figures emerge, subtly illuminated by the rays of a lamp. Stars and flowers flicker outside the window to the right, while a tiny gecko scales the wall. In the dim, quiet glow of the room, an unheard fortune is told. One of several works on the subject, the painting takes its place within Toor’s growing pantheon of painterly chronicles, whose characters inhabit twilit, enigmatic worlds. Recently the subject of a major exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art—his first solo museum show—the artist draws heavily upon his own experience, depicting imaginary stories of queer Asian and American men. Influences from the art of his native Pakistan mingle with nods to the Old Masters, the Impressionists and other elements of the Western canon. Here, faint echoes of Caravaggio’s The Fortune Teller (circa 1596-97) dissolve into a scene of intimacy and suspense: like the artist himself, the palm reader delves into the past, and looks towards the future.
Art history has formed my imaginary map of the world, conquests, migrations, ideas of civilisation, foreignness, and fashion. I like seeing the thread of the past in the present”
Born in Lahore in 1983, Toor moved to America to attend art school in Ohio, before later taking up residence in New York. The experience of relocation—specifically, the transition between feeling marginalised and feeling at home—feeds continuously into his paintings. ‘I attempt to think about my experience in Lahore and in New York City seamlessly’, he explains. ‘… For me, the in-between spaces are metaphorical/allegorical spaces of bureaucracy and suspicion. They can take on the feeling of an inner psychic space of some of the characters. They are certainly rooted in the diasporic experience and in the idea that you may not belong anywhere while thinking that you belong in multiple places. To present yourself on the cusp of another world is to be seen’ (S. Toor, quoted in ‘Blurring the Lines between Public and Private: Salman Toor Interviewed by Cassie Packard’, BOMB Magazine, 12 February 2021). The motif of the palm reader seems to speak directly to this sense of exposure: the interaction between the two figures is one of discovery and revelation, as the boundaries of the central character’s identity are drawn and redrawn.
They are bookish, urban creatures that come from my imagination. They drink and argue about what the future of a multiethnic queer culture might look like and attempt to inhabit the freedom promised in an urban Western world—and try to find its costs”
Lot Essay Header Image: The present lot (detail).