Impressions of Salman Toor’s show “How Will I Know” at The Whitney Museum of American Art, on through April 4, 2021.

The protagonist here a traveler in silence — where do we dream, when dreaming in public?

“I am tall and I am thin / Of an enviable height / And I’ve been known to be quite handsome / In a certain angle and in a certain light” [Nick Cave, O’Malley’s Bar].

Two Men with Vans, Tie and Bottle (Detail + Full), 2019, Salman Toor, Installation view. Image: Troels Steenholdt Heiredal, artwork © Salman Toor, Whitney Museum of American Art

There’s a slowness to the paintings, a stillness. The scenes float within the surface, multiple brushstrokes layered in series, placing all of them in a soft thick space that’s not quite defined — a space that still feels malleable and active. The characters pushing it around with their presence. At times, the only thing that separates the space from the characters is a directional switch in the brushstroke — all else is the same. The directional switch that pulls the characters up and out, pushing them towards us. Trying to come out of the painted space to join us.

And still, the backgrounds never materialize. They stay in this perpetual motion, never fully coming into focus. The sheer way the paint is applied suggests that this is still a work in progress, only a snapshot to soon be reworked—the constant transformation a part of the constant truth-seeking we can never arrive at. We will never fully know the truth about others, or about ourselves; we’re always being slightly reworked. In one scene, the background almost reverberates around the character’s head, as it is falling upon it in thick, layered strokes like a waterfall. Absolving the wall into a constant motion. The characters seem to be in touch with the background, or even trying to escape it, having to pull themselves out of it? Are they caught between wanting to stand out and to blend in? Caught in a silent struggle for being?

Two Men with Vans, Tie and Bottle (Detail + Full), 2019, Salman Toor, Installation view. Image: Troels Steenholdt Heiredal, artwork © Salman Toor, Luhring Augustine, at Whitney Museum of American Art

While dancing, the protagonist’s head sends the background into lighter waves around his head. Hands reverberate the space they find themselves in — while touching others in a bar, sending out the vibration of touch. The movement of holding back a fist, when standing alone at the end of a table, looked at with petty, boredom, or even being actively ignored. A trembling reach for help or mercy, when forced naked on the ground. A nervous motion in front of the TSA officer while trying to seem natural, but also wanting to protect one’s personal items now on display.

The Arrival (Private Collection) + Details, 2019, Salman Toor, Installation view. Image: Troels Steenholdt Heiredal, artwork © Salman Toor, Luhring Augustine, at Whitney Museum of American Art

This movement of the background turns into a full-out glow, almost deity-like, around the head of our protagonist’s reflection as he sits for a make-up session. And then in looking back at the scene of arrival; here, the background dissolves into a white nothingness, not quite a glow more an anticipation — a hesitation of the light. This is reinforced by the protagonist’s dress, resembling Jesus in The Last Supper. And finally, as the protagonist silently observes two dogs play on a couch, this glow reaches its full power. Has he achieved some state of calm and found a way into the light, away from the green veil draped over other scenes? Here, it’s restricted to the couch only while the space has come into focus.

The Star (Detail + Full), 2019, Salman Toor, Installation view. Image: Troels Steenholdt Heiredal, artwork © Salman Toor, Whitney Museum of American Art

While the background almost annuls the notion of space, only hints at it enough to give an idea, the environmental edges become shifts in tone and flow together as if they are part of a dream space. This pushes your focus onto the central character, from which we can never fully see the periphery of the situation — where does it start or stop? There’s something just outside the painting, another presence that allows us to perceive them as connected scenes — fragmented, interconnected points in a story. And then you realize, that you are the last character, the missing other from the scenes: the officer looking through their stuff, the person entering the bar, the friend that’s already at the apartment when he shows up. We become the other half of these paintings.

Puppy Play Date (Detail + Full), 2019, Salman Toor, Installation view. Image: Troels Steenholdt Heiredal, artwork © Salman Toor, Luhring Augustine, at Whitney Museum of American Art

And then there’s this glow again. It’s not restricted to the characters, and also lends itself to bottleheads, drinks, and two dogs. It emanates from screens and lights throughout the series. It’s calling our gaze and moving it around. This constant interaction of the space, pushing it around, moves us from one place to the next. We so often use objects to define ourselves, even if subconsciously. Finding support in their sameness, as all else seems to move. They, too, are a language.

And you notice certain items keep showing up: a ring that appears on several characters, a necklace, a painted fingernail, a hashtag — a mark? Each item has its own storyline for us to follow. Are they a way to point to separate storylines possible within the paintings? A series of supporting acts? Each time you decide on an item to follow, you build a new storyline onto the paintings. Might these be clues to be traced through the series, providing a deeper understanding of the constellation of characters? Or simply decoys, part of the dream logic that keeps everything in constant flux, as the paintings refuse to be pinned down. They bring attention to how much we are all in constant flux and how foolish is the notion of defining ourselves against a solid background, when it’s always somewhere in-between, something that moves.

Var. Details, 2019, Salman Toor, Installation view. Image: Troels Steenholdt Heiredal, artwork © Salman Toor, Luhring Augustine, at Whitney Museum of American Art

The paintings are drenched in a sadness, a melancholy. It’s like they are holding back on you, caught in limbo. The blank stares of the protagonist suggest these may be sad memories, or perhaps dreams of what could have been. Or is the sadness with me? Why do I read a sadness into them when half of the scenes are actually of joy?

Sometimes the characters are painted at half-scale, the same scale your face appears to yourself if you were to trace it in a mirror. Making you experience these characters the same way as you do your own reflection, you unconsciously reflect in them. You can feel with them, or are they a reflection of your feelings? That you read your state of mind onto their faces. Is this where the sadness comes from, did I bring it into these paintings? Is this my fever dream? As Trinh T Minh-ha notes, “In writing close to the other of the other, I can only choose to maintain a self-reflexively critical relationship towards the material, a relationship that defines both the subject written and the writing subject, undoing the I while asking ‘what do I want wanting to know you or me?’” [Women, Native, Other, p. 76].

How do we set free the stories we tell? How do we tell a story without telling the story what it is? How to both give enough information for us to get into the story, but without it overpowering and dictating how this information is to be understood? Leaving a space between yourself and the story you’re telling; a space for us to enter and explore. In these paintings, there’s so much of this, they are generous in allowing us in. They feel like the glimpses out of the corner of your eye, those you almost don’t see and that vanish again from your inner eye just as you thought you managed to reconstruct the whole again. And they make you continue to doubt whether you actually saw them— was it a dream or a Fata Morgana?

Tea (Detail + Full), 2020, Salman Toor, Installation view. Image: Troels Steenholdt Heiredal, artwork © Salman Toor, Luhring Augustine, at Whitney Museum of American Art

What is it that Salman Toor is trying to teach me about my own gaze and the way it has consequences. Perhaps that we never just look, we always perceive. And through our perception, we can choose to make space for others, or to look away in anger—at ourselves for not understanding, for being afraid, for holding back — while our cigarette burns orange.

“We speak in the languages we were taught to speak, in order to undo the languages we were taught to speak” [Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, The Freezer Door, p.54]

(b. 1984) is exploring the difference between seeing and perceiving.