Idris Salaam, Non-Contextual Intellectual
Too-simple conclusions are the work of too-simple minds, and Idris Salaam’s mind is far from a simple one.
When Idris Salaam was a teenager at New York City’s LaGuardia High School — the audition-only Upper West Side arts institution that produced Nicki Minaj, Timothée Chalamet, and Azealia Banks — he often fell asleep on lengthy subway rides to morning classes. “The next stop is 125th Street, so if you miss 59th Street, you’re on it for a while,” he tells me, voice competing with lurching garbage trucks below, as he perches in a fold-up chair stage-center in his modest Brooklyn studio space. “I’d wake up and see the doors closing, and I’d be like damn.” The image is somewhat prophetically fitting for Salaam’s current painting practice, because a few short feet across from him, stacked one-on-top-of-the-other against a wall, are canvases from a widely subway-focused series he’s working on entitled “Run.” Mostly envisioned through the closing doors of metro trains, the paintings feature sprinting figures trapped in jarringly-chaotic motion blurs, their identifiable features just as obscured as their backstories. The works’ collective haunting visual quality is conjured entirely by the question of what Salaam’s characters are running to, or (gulp) from. On one canvas, for instance, a hazy, beanie-clad humanoid with a long stride and a grinning face looks like both sides of a horrific thriller plot at once: he could be a deranged serial killer dashing Joker-style after his next unlucky E train straphanger-turned-murder-victim, just as much as his “grin” could actually be a panicked grimace, his long stride a desperate escape from something far more frightening fastly gaining ground.
“I want the paintings to act like open prompts. Where it’s kind of like, This could be that. Or this could also be that.”
Something you quickly learn about Salaam, though, is that if there are obvious guesses like the latter, they are most likely wrong — not because specific correct interpretations exist for every piece he produces, but more so because too-simple conclusions are the work of too-simple minds, and Idris Salaam’s mind is far from a simple one. “With my work, the person making it is African-American, male, young, Muslim… so [it’s easy] to just say Oh, this is where it’s coming from, so this is what it must mean,” he explains, standing next to me across from four “Run” canvases now lined up side-by-side on the studio wall. “I want the paintings to act like open prompts. Where it’s kind of like, This could be that. Or this could also be that. […] I don’t think too hard about their contexts. I’m more about taking the context out, and letting that be what drives them to be interesting.”
In case you were wondering, the shared inspiration of the “Run” paintings isn’t a spree of gruesome New York City metro murders, but a series of about 40 videos Salaam has in his phone of friends playfully sprinting after getting off at their subway stops. It’s indicative of a certain proneness to misconstruements the freshly-graduated art-maker tends to carry with him, both on an artistic level and a personal one. Some of them, he’s aware and quite wary of — like being regarded as a model before an artist, despite his being adamant that the art has always come first. (“I’ve seen ‘model who does art’ look disingenuous,” he tells me over email.) Others, in contrast, are more low-stakes — like how when I first meet him in person, he looks a lot like he’s on his way back from dropping 32 points at a basketball scrimmage, only for the very first thing he tells me to be that he was never really too great at sports. Our first meeting happens on Randolph Street, a remote Brooklyn roadway lined with groaning garbage trucks and stagnant water from days-old rainstorms. It’s a mid-temperature Wednesday afternoon in May, and when he walks over from a nearby café to let me into his studio building, he’s wearing over-the-knee work shorts reminiscent of his previous life as a skater, a white T-shirt solely decorated by screengrabs of King Krule album reviews, and a neat set of freshly-done cornrows that make him look a little bit like Nuggets Carmelo Anthony. The braids were the work of a Brooklyn salon recommended to him by a skateboarding friend; as much as he says the stylist did a great job, he admits that they’re a little tight because his hair is still recovering from a significant trim his mom made him get when he was younger.
“The time is just catching up.”
…Which, although tightly-wound braids can be painful, also has an effect of somewhat keeping him grounded in his past. The cornrows wouldn’t be alone in operating to this end. Both in painting and drawing, Salaam’s artistry is beginning to allow him more and more space to tap back into the scatterbrained creative impulses he felt growing up, but never had a real platform to effectively harbor until now. “My practice is starting to remind me of my youth in a way, where I’m reference-dependent,” he told me in an email a week before our first interview. “Since I could remember, I drew everything I was interested in (Pokemon, Anime characters, Video games), and today I feel like my practice feels like a ‘grown-up’/ sophisticated version of my younger self’s practice.” It’s an innocuous sensibility omnipresent across his studio: on his half of a college dorm-sized room he shares with another artist, works piled up in corners include charcoal drawings of rocket ships, paintings of toddlers in oversized two-piece suits, and eclectic mixtures of pencil lead and oil paint that cross the innocence of elementary school art showcases with the aesthetic intellect of indie New York galleries.
At the same time that his youthful side is becoming increasingly integral to his being, there’s doubly an urgent penchant for growing up that isn’t lost on him. Throughout most of his time in high school, for instance, he tells me a large portion of his identity was derived from the skate circles he occupied. That was, until (on top of sustaining worrisome knee injuries) he realized that the people surrounding him were only really his friends when he was skating — and that for the most part, many barely changed. “A lot of skateboarders don’t grow up,” he says, fidgeting with the straw of a green tea he got from the café. “I can’t even imagine myself being at home playing games for three hours [during the day, as opposed to skating a curb for the same amount of time]. The time is just catching up.”
Time is always catching up to people in financially-risky realms like the art world, but for Salaam, over the past few months, things seem to have been moving quite a bit quicker. Since graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology around this time last year, he’s had two tastes of his work being shown on its own, a group show, a hand in an expansive curatorial platform, and an ever-growing rolodex of higher-up figures willing to take him under their wings. As of the writing of this piece, he’s being featured in “Bungalow,” a group show at Westbeth Gallery in Manhattan — the namesake of which is the aforementioned curatorial platform — where several of his pieces are sharing a room with work by his friend Louis Osmosis, an eccentric Brooklyn sculptor he used to skip classes with at LaGuardia. At some point within the next several months, he’s gearing up to have a solo exhibition in London.
The meteoric ascent he faces on a macro scale, contrasted with the slowly-trudging present he gets through day-by-day, places Salaam on a two-sided timeline that has, up to now, typified his young career. And as it seems, the only way to make sense of it in the present is to keep it grounded in the past. For one, his studio practice currently consists of taking one step backwards and potentially bumping into another artist working in the same room — but just one year ago, when his work was set to be shown in its own setting for the first time, Anonymous Gallery director K.O. Nnamdie’s formal studio visit was literally conducted at his mom’s house (“I just had all these paintings at my mom’s crib”). A similar gospel is applicable to the modeling-slash-art interplay, too: ask him why he’s in Europe a few months from now, and it will be an exhibition under his own name, but ask him why he was in Europe a few years ago, and the answer would have probably been a modeling gig. It’s a gritty climb up, but one that’s already showing signs, no matter how small, of reciprocation. “I’m no stranger to roughing it out,” he says. “It’s like when people are asked to sleep on the couch, and they’re like Oh, I don’t sleep on the couch. I’m like bro- sometimes I love the couch.” He swivels to his left, and gestures towards the cluttered collection of paintings lined up on his side of the studio space. “I know right now all I have is a wall. At one point I didn’t even have a fucking wall.”
“I think the younger me would be like Oh, okay. This is what you did, huh.”
A big part of the “Run” paintings’ desired appeal, Salaam explains at one point, is the ambiguity of what their central characters are running to or from. It is in this sense that he’s become a living embodiment of his art — the same way that all we know about his Subway-bound characters is that they’re running, all we know about Idris Salaam as of right now is that he, too, is running towards whatever happens to be next. Upon being informed that this interview was happening, Salaam tells me that his dad asked him whether he had a “Five Year Plan” he’d be ready to lay out just in case I inquired. The response was just as correct in interpreting his future as it is in interpreting his work: “I don’t know if I really have an answer,” he said.
A day after my first interview with Salaam, I visit Osmosis’s debut solo exhibition “PLEASE IT IS MAKING THEM THANKS :)” at Kapp Kapp Gallery, a cozy fourth-floor showroom run by brothers Sammy and Daniel Kapp in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Whereas Salaam comes off as the more introspective and soft-spoken one between the two, Osmosis is a bit more obviously someone who cut his LaGuardia classes to hang out in the school sculpture studio — after a few minutes spent inside, he takes off his coat to reveal an impressive camouflage Bape hoodie, and when I use the term “pessimistic” while being semi-lectured by the painter Miranda Zhang about bad art journalism practices, he wastes little time blurting out the correction “pressimistic.” (Get it?)
Beyond all hypebeast outerwear and philosophical puns, because Osmosis has garnered a certain footing in the art world — a jarring cockroach sculpture he made for this show was the cover star of this month’s Brooklyn Rail — his presence in the infrastructure has also been able to create friendly cracks in the door for Salaam. The “Bungalow” show, for instance, went on to include him in part because of a connection Osmosis had with Quinn Schoen, a founding partner in the curatorial platform. Salaam’s participation in the exhibition was solidified after, upon chatting with Schoen about a show Osmosis was featured in, he wound up befriending him, then ultimately being invited to join Bungalow’s core long-term. “He made that happen in a sense, because I just knew him,” Salaam said in our first meeting. On the “Bungalow” show they’re featured in together: “It was cool to be in the same show with someone I’m familiar with, and a good friend of. His practice and mine are completely different, formally, but it worked together pretty well.”
“Traveling is the cure to all ignorance.”
The sentiment isn’t lost on Osmosis, who, up to when I ask him about Salaam, has been sharing the gallery’s cozy back room with myself, Zhang, and the Kapp brothers, occasionally blowing smoke clouds while making small talk with visitors who stop by to purchase his new book. “He’s one of the most intuitively smart people that I’ve known,” he tells me. “A lot of his choices with the types of marks he makes and the images he chooses are indicative of a certain emotional intellect that he has. And that’s his infinity stone. That’s why he’s my bro.”
Much of this emotional intellect is informed by a youth-invoking intuition to learn, but in a way where just as much weight is placed on the enrichment of others as on that of himself. He told me in an email that he was getting back into reading; when I ask him what he’s been digging into lately, he brings up Tillmans Reader, a hefty interview collection that functions to make clear the philosophies behind Wolfgang Tillmans’ photographic legend. Rather than point out any of the several ideas, artmaking approaches, or pullquote-ready sentences that likely populate the text, Salaam tells me that thus far, what’s captivated him the most is how accessible it is. “What I do like about it is that his language is very approachable,” he says. “He doesn’t get into too much jargon. The way he talks about his work is something I also relate to, in how I want to talk about my work. I feel like I relate to not necessarily his topics or subjects, but how he describes how he wants people to see his art.”
As much as this humble simplicity is something he claims to be aspiring to, Salaam very much comes across like someone who has already mastered the craft: he narrates our studio walkthrough with the cadence of someone actively trying to figure out the paintings from the outside looking in; he isn’t afraid to admit that some pieces began with no intention; he speaks of his work less like a haughty artist bent on impressing (get it?) starstruck journalists, and more like a kid parsing through storylines from Pokemon or the WWE Universe, humbly intent on bringing his lunchroom peers to the same level of thinking. “A big misconception [I had] is that everyone in the art world is pretentious,” he tells me at one point. “It’s not like that. People are very inviting. They’re willing to work with you, talk to you, on any level. It doesn’t have to be all five-syllable words.” For someone far from inexperienced with combating misconceptions of his own, the higher up he can get on the art world’s ladder may equal the more room he has to dismantle them for the industry writ large. But perhaps this time around, the task is more challenging than it’s ever been.
As of right now, if you asked him how to solve the art world’s problems (and probably the whole world’s problems, too), he’d probably answer with something that he can start by doing himself. Like traveling, for instance — several times in our first meeting, he tells me that he’s stoked on getting around the world more because “traveling is the cure to all ignorance.” Although he may not have the time (who even does?) to book a few hundred plane tickets over the next couple of years, a micro-scale means by which he’s inching into that territory is a newfound effort to learn how to drive. It’s one of several checkpoints on a larger self-improvement campaign he’s embarked on since graduating from FIT; and much like the larger career-wise climb he’s on in the art world, it doesn’t promise to come without hesitance or difficulty. This sense is perhaps most bluntly, and brutally, rendered in a set of three paintings he pulls out from a corner, each one depicting motion-blurred freeze-frames of bodies smashed up against car windshields. The series was inspired by a cathartic stretch in 2020, one where he found himself voraciously revisiting the early-internet image platforms of his teenage years — Flickr, Tumblr, Pinterest, et cetera — to scour endless scrolls of jarring visuals. Given the circumstances of that summer, a kind of image that recurred often was of protestors being rammed by vehicles. “What I liked about those photos and those videos,” he tells me, “is that they were stills that almost made it seem kind of romantic, in a way. It was kind of in the same respect as the Runs, where they’re just fragments of a moment.” The images also challenged him to a degree beyond aesthetics. “It was one of those things I was always worried about… My biggest thing was probably hitting someone. I was watching those videos as if I was in the point of view of someone driving, and I was like Aw man, I would have definitely hit them too.”
Salaam hasn’t hit anyone with a car yet, and hopefully his vehicular manslaughter record remains clean, but he still remains quite aware of damage he may have done by means beyond heavy machinery. Though it didn’t directly cause any deaths, as much as he’s keen on remembering the artistry he exhibited as a kid, he’s also just as keen on remembering the immaturity. Sometimes, it was rooted in shyness, albeit years later it registers as what internetters may christen early signs of “Chad behavior” — one day in high school, a girl sent him an incredibly lengthy DM asking him to consider voting for her in the class election, to which he straight-up replied “No.” Other times, too, it was purely childish: the first (and only) fight he ever got into, which wound up being a centerpoint of several years’ worth of enrollment in karate lessons, was over not being picked to be on the birthday boy’s pickup soccer team at a friend’s celebration.
“You don’t really see a face of what you’re performing to.”
Today, obviously, he’s a lot more chill, and not as likely to fight you over spoiled birthday festivities. (“Everyone on both sides just looks bad,” he laughs.) If we live in a universe where the older Idris can reflect on the younger one, though, it’s fun to think that somewhere, some way, somehow, the younger Idris is equally studying the one that sits before me. What would young Idris say about current Idris?
Salaam sits with the question briefly, then begins to walk me through a series of creative phases he underwent as a kid that knew that he wanted to do art, but didn’t know exactly how. “I was, like, making mockup video games in my sketchbook, then I wanted to do cartoons, then I wanted to do comic books,” he says casually, with a playful smirk on his face. The list goes on for a bit, before being concluded on a note not far less blunt than one-word answers to class presidential DMs. Only this time, the curtness seems a bit more rooted in humility than shyness: “I think the younger me would be like Oh, okay. This is what you did, huh.”
It’s a Friday afternoon in the East Village, and Salaam is waving at me from the snug outdoor area of Westbeth Gallery, where eight of his paintings are being shown in Bungalow’s group exhibition until May 27th. A few minutes before my arrival, he found himself, for one of the first times in his career, faced with the task of explaining his work to an interested buyer on-demand: a London-based art collector had hastily approached him upon taking a liking to a pair of his paintings on display, and engaged him in a spirited discussion about them even though they had already sold. The moment is one of several microcosms, increasing in oftenness, of a comfort Salaam will soon have to develop in playing the role of main character. In the one solo “show” he’s been featured in besides 2021’s First Impression, the premise wasn’t as much an exhibition dedicated to his work, but a Manhattan hangout spot that just so happened to have pieces of his hung on its walls. Right in line with this spirit, a majority of his art-making career up to now has seen him either on the fringes of the spotlight in group shows, or gracefully flirting with the grand attention his art commands when in its own setting. With a solo coming up in London soon, the demand for him to step fully into his own ethos is only going to grow higher — and as it does so, a little more than contextual ambiguity is going to be tasked with drawing lines between himself and his expanding list of eager consumers.
“You really don’t want to know too much about yourself, or what people think about you. You don’t need that information. Because maybe after that, you won’t act honestly.”
“I was telling my parents I was nervous, and they were like, Why are you nervous? You’ve been doing this since you were like, five years old!” he says of the upcoming London solo, chatting with me in the echo-heavy gallery room his work is sharing with a sculpture by Osmosis. “It’s different when you’re doing it and there’s no reciprocation. When you’re just making stuff and then saying Alright, this is cool [as in: I am satisfied].”
The complicating factor now is that, seemingly all of a sudden, a whole lot of other people think Salaam’s work is cool, too. Upon briefly joining us to chat about the show, Schoen reveals that all of Salaam’s pieces sold out — one customer being an established Milan collector who, looking to start his family’s art estate, found the “Run” painting on display a fitting foundational piece for his endowment. The three of us laugh about the prospect of Salaam’s work coming out of a modest shared studio in Brooklyn, then winding up in the ritzy legacies of prominent European art collectors. But his series of rapid elevations, each one making less logical sense than the last, may also silently pose just as many potential challenges as it does laughable boons: when your art enters the wider public eye, whether you’re ready or not, to some extent, it’s bound to drag you along with it. And the only way for Salaam to figure out whether or not he’s up to it is to dive in head-first. “I’m not used to seeing myself as the primary person,” he says of his interaction with the London collector. “I guess I wasn’t really surprised. I was just surprised that it was me.”
A fitting visual for the new dynamic this interaction represents is, quite conveniently, the pair of paintings it happened to be centered around. Both titled “Blind Man” as a nod to a 1963 Herbie Hancock song, the pieces work in tandem to put into perspective producer-consumer interplays in performance-based mediums — a conductor waves his baton before a murky blackish-gray abyss in one; starlike camera flashes light up a stormy green backdrop in its counterpart.
“This is what conductors are seeing when they’re on the stage,” he told me during our initial studio visit. “They’re seeing people taking pictures of them; they’re seeing all these lights- it’s just really dark, and you’re performing. You don’t really see a face of what you’re performing to.”
The Hancock album the shared inspiration of the “Blind Man” paintings hails from is titled My Point of View, which, as he was formulating the idea for them, Salaam saw as a confirmational sign. Up to this point, Salaam’s artistic point of view has posed quite a similar sight to the conductor’s grayscale abyss. Now, though, ever so steadily, the cameras are beginning to flash. “It’s amazing,” Schoen says of the reception of Salaam’s work at the Bungalow show. “It’s what we anticipated, hoped for, and expected, but it happened.”
“As soon as you turn something you enjoy doing into a job… I was like I hate this now.”
As the days get closer to his London solo, Salaam is embracing his role as a performer in more ways than one. The King Krule T-shirt he wore to our first meeting is somewhat indicative of another medium he’s beginning to embrace — he’s been picking up the guitar lately, and in a few days, he tells me he’s scheduled to meet a friend who plays drums in Brooklyn for a jam session. (A similar multidisciplinary approach seems to run through Laguardia’s hallways: Osmosis reveals to me that he’s actually a great singer, and that he auditioned for both the school’s vocal and visual arts programs.) “I have fun learning stuff on the guitar,” he says at one point, “and that’s all I want. Just to learn more. You learn a new song and it’s amazing. It’s a great feeling. You’re chasing that feeling when you try to learn more about something.”
Both artistically and in person, Salaam registers like a public learner forged from this very inquisitive impetus. Today at Westbeth, he’s wearing a beanie that looks like an inside-out planet Earth, along with a faded blue sweatsuit — a masterclass in 8 AM lecture attire that he substantiates with a masterclass in 8 AM lecture poise. His cadence is one of eternally letting the moment come to him, rather than charging it by force. And, much like in his paintings, the context of the moment doesn’t seem to matter as much to him as what he can glean from it. “There’s no one way or another as to how he wants to juxtapose one image with the next,” Osmosis says. “Which is, to say, it’s more a thing of their operational tendencies- seeing whatever references they pull from, and seeing how those things can align.”
A specific painting of Salaam’s wherein this quality is perceptible is one he shows me briefly after taking me through the “Run” series. It’s an endearing portrait of a sunglasses-clad face, blue with shadow, shaded by a straight hand that forms a stringent quasi-salute at its brow. The reference point, in this case, was a photo Salaam stumbled across in his scouring of image-based social media platforms, wherein a similarly sunglasses-clad fan marveled at a baseball in midair. But, as he tells me, there are several other judgments to be made depending on where a viewer is coming from — like how if someone happens to have the Ukrainian invasion on their heart, the figure can quickly transform into a soldier in battle, the white spec in his sunglasses not a baseball, but a missile. It’s similar to the way that, given that each series came in the debris of social unrest in 2020, both his “Run” paintings and his car crash paintings were often eagerly interpreted as protest art. But whereas one would anticipate an artist in such a position correcting thematic misinterpretations with every opportunity possible, Salaam seems content to be starting dialogues in general, even if they go beyond what he originally intended for them to entail. A turn of phrase he repeats often, mostly about day jobs and modeling, is that “[thing] does what it’s supposed to do.” For his craft, the obscurity of a clear thing it’s “supposed to do” is an innocuous reversion of a longtime art world tendency towards specifics. It flips the meaning of the term “accessible” — something visually accessible (like a 2160-pixel shot of a man running in a subway station) isn’t conversationally accessible, because it dictates to you, here is a man running in a subway station. Salaam’s work, though often visually inaccessible (like a blurry humanoid running in the fuzzy entrails of what looks like a subway station, kind of) is conversationally accessible, because it leaves a void eternally fillable by anyone willing to take a guess. The consumers are the geniuses of Salaam’s works just as much as he is — much like the reference points that are pieced together to create them, the viewers become a third rail to his crafts, completing their open-ended puzzles, and in turn completing their creative circuitry. Context matters very little when there’s mental handiwork to fill in the blanks.
Salaam loved making animated videos through much of his teenage years, but for the most part, the pastime stopped being part of his life when he was asked to craft one for a Polo campaign. “As soon as you turn something you enjoy doing into a job… I was like I hate this now,” he tells me. “By the end of it, I was like Just take it, please. Please be okay with the video I made. They’ll tell you to scratch something entirely, then do this and add that… You do realize you want this by, like, Friday, right?”
It’s an endearing microcosm of a longer history Salaam has with similar sudden, life-altering transitions. Upon graduating from LaGuardia, he applied to the Parsons School of Design and the Cooper Union in hopes of diving headfirst into a realization of his artistic capacity. He got into Parsons, and almost immediately began experiencing strange medical phenomena: after spending his summer braving an uptick of smaller issues — ear ringing, sudden inability to keep food down, et cetera — he realized by his first day of college that things had nightmarishly escalated.
“At the first day of school at Parsons, I had another vertigo attack,” he explains. “And I woke up, and I was like I can’t miss school. So I went to school all dizzy and shit, and I’m noticing that I can’t hear well.” His very first class included a mini-trip to one of Parsons’s on-campus museums. Before long, he found himself sprinting to the nearest restroom to throw up the banana and crackers he had eaten for breakfast.
“I had to rethink what I wanted out of an art career.”
Visits to the doctor’s office grew frequent as the odd behavior proved persistent. For reasons unbeknownst to both Salaam and the medics, his right ear and left ear began taking turns exhibiting hearing issues, and then going back to normal again. “I was fucked for a while,” he says of his first few weeks navigating Parsons with the problem. “I was like, What am I doing right now? And I was already a shy person, so the worst thing to get was something that sets you back socially… It was just a weird time.”
A decision to drop out of Parsons — which, even though he had only been there for a fraction of a semester, still left him with a large sum of debt to handle — led to a pivotal two-year stretch wherein, out of school and removed from the career-wise conveyor belt he had been riding with his generation of New York City students for years, Salaam gained space to do some much-needed thinking. It was a relatively isolated period, one that saw him (much like what his practice is making him do now) tap back in with where his passions for art were rooted in the first place, on top of fielding a similar reevaluation of life on a more macro scale. “No one should be that adamant about going to college right after high school,” he says, now. “It’s a big choice. […] I had to rethink what I wanted out of an art career.” There were some points of this recalibration period that saw him get back into drawing, others that saw him dabble further into making animations, and others, even, that saw him do nothing at all. But when all was said and done, after getting back to a level of comfort with re-entering the academic world, he enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where — although it happened in the most anti-climactic way possible, especially given all that he had been through — he graduated, virtual ceremony or not, with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in May of 2021.
A common word of encouragement Salaam received throughout the worst of the six-year process, both on medical and academic fronts, was that “someone out there has it worse.” Today, it remains a line of logic that he’s quite wary of. “Why would that make anyone feel better? Why would that even make yourself feel better? Trying to diminish what’s going on, because someone else has it worse,” he tells me. “I heard it when I was going through it. Like Oh, at least you’re not deaf. At least you’re not blind. Like, what the fuck… are you consoling me?” He references a Dave Chappelle skit where the comedian, upon saying that he’s hungry, is asked What about the kids in Africa? “Nigga, I still want lunch!”
Funny as it is, it’s a line of logic that not only helps to keep Salaam grounded in the context of others, but also in the context of himself. His current practice’s preoccupation with the younger Idris serves to, in a way, inadvertently bounce a version of Chappelle’s question off the walls of his studio space — except that now, rather than what about the things [person] is dealing with, it’s a question of what about the things you were dealing with? Much of his younger self’s work likely isn’t explicitly indicative of deeply personal or societal troubles (there probably isn’t too much thinkpiecing you can do on a notebook Pokémon sketch), but at the same time, there’s a certain level of growth necessary to be able to re-engage with the same images years later, and extrapolate completely different meanings from them. If Salaam were preoccupied with the struggles of his past selves, much like those constantly preoccupied with the struggles of people who have it worse, he would still be drawing portraits of Sonic just to be drawing portraits of Sonic. The evidence of his progression, though, lies in the fact that his youthful fixations are no longer central ideas, but referential connective tissues: if Salaam is making portraits of Sonic today, it’s because it’s part of a larger dialogue, and not the entire dialogue in and of itself.
“You don’t start remembering stuff until you see something that scratches that part of your brain,” he tells me. “So I think even me making stuff is an edition of self-exploration. That’s what I’m doing when I’m creating- I’m like, Oh, this reminds me of that. I feel like I’m working my own brain, even though I’m purely going off of an adolescent feeling.”
“They’re doing what they’re supposed to do.”
The current setup of Salaam’s studio space is, at some level, a fitting visual embodiment of this youth-informed creative impulse. Evenly-spaced thumbtacks populate his wall; whenever he wants to show me a certain set of paintings, or visualize a series of works that play on a similar theme, he hangs them adjacent to one another on the pushpins, studying them the same way an FBI agent would study a string-laden detective board. Which is, he says at one point, exactly the kind of thing he wants to be able to do when he can get his hands on a bigger workroom — have the capacity, both spatially and mentally, to take a step back and connect the dots without bumping into someone else. But for right now, he’s at a level artistically that somewhat mirrors who he is on a personal level: the only “someone else” who’s going to get in his way is him. He’s far removed from concern about what his art does once left to the devices of its consumers, and, with this being taken care of, the work is afforded heightened room to interrogate its creator just as much as it can interrogate those who encounter it. “His leading edge is affect,” Osmosis says. “It’s a level of when earnesty can meet pessimism. Or earnesty can meet being admittent of your own deficiencies – the things you can bring forth from that.”
The earnesty is on full display when, standing with him in the middle of his paintings at the Bungalow show, I ask Salaam whether he feels that it’s the right of an artist to know how people construe their work. “I don’t know about ‘right,’” he starts, immediately after I finish my question. “You know when they ask what kind of superpower do you want to have and people are like I want to read minds? What are you doing- you really don’t want to know too much about yourself, or what people think about you. You don’t need that information. Because maybe after that, you won’t act honestly.”
For him, honesty looks a lot less like forcing his artistic truth down people’s throats, and more like letting people think whatever they want to think, even if it doesn’t necessarily line up with what he has in mind. He tells me that, upon hearing his explanation of the “Blind Man” paintings, the aforementioned London collector said that she saw them in a completely different light, albeit she left before getting to explain any further. Standing next to me an hour or so after the encounter, he’s wistful about having missed out on what she had to say, though hopeful about the infinitude of other perspectives there will always be to hear.
“Me… and him,” he says, scanning the room just in time to use someone studying a few Run drawings as an example, “we wouldn’t have the same thoughts about certain things. And I think that would apply in art, too.”
The viewer, too entranced to either realize or react to Salaam’s comments, gives the drawings a long, quizzical stare. Sitting there on the wall, they’re doing what they’re supposed to do.