To experience Denyse Thomasos: just beyond, the retrospective exhibition of the Trinidadian-Canadian contemporary painter is to be dually encased: once by the sizeable dimensions of the canvases which, in consort, render the viewer physically encadré within their mesmerizing meshwork and bold colour palette, and, twice, by one’s critical assimilation of the complexities of these intense architectures. Immediate visceral experience gives over to the reception of the gestures that are the core of Thomasos’ work: boats, prison cells, stacks of buildings, all of which elliptically reference the millions of victims of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and its continuing legacy of racism as perpetuated through contemporary structures and systems both material and social.
Born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1964, Thomasos emigrated to Canada with her family in the early 1970s. She studied painting and art history at the University of Toronto Mississauga from 1984 to 1987 and continued her studies in the U.S., earning an MFA from the Yale School of Art and establishing herself in New York through residencies and eventually with a professorship at Rutgers University.
After an early period of experimentation with the figurative, Thomasos leaned toward symbolic representation in 1989 by completing a transitional suite of three large paintings at Yale in tones of greys and umbers. In Sacrifice, a horse in the hold of a slave ship sways precariously over a mound of skulls; light sets the tone of a bound infinite. In one of the two Untitled pieces, an unending string of white coffins disappears into the background. Michelle Jacques reveals how Thomasos was transformed by the work of de Kooning, who used the unbound space to centre his paintings. His work helped Thomasos understand that her own work “with space and line was valid” leading her to “want to use line, space and architectural structures to chart the psychological experience and state of mind at this exact moment of a people with a history of slavery.”
By 1993, when Thomasos breaks with a more figurative style and enters into abstractionism with Dos Amigos [Slave Boat] (1993), Jail (1993), and Displaced Burial/Burial at Gorée (1993), she has created an intense and visceral experience realized through distinct overlapping lines and intense backgrounds, with a further exploration of the bound infinite through the depth created by overlapping lines. Thomasos continued to engage with the themes that marked some of her earlier pieces, eliciting the symbols of racism from slave ships to prison cells and the resulting slums, favelas and stacks of cargo containers that now make ‘acceptable’ homes – the echoes of the particular geographies of the slave trade.
With many canvases between 10 and 20 feet wide, Thomasos was no stranger to large-scale works and was thus equally adept with murals. The magnitude of her paintings contributes to their imposing nature, reflecting the qualities of her subject matter. Walls of bold vertical and horizontal lines like those in Recollect (1994) and vast, gravity-defying superimposed grids like those in Virtual Incarceration (1999), and the recurring form of the panopticon evince a panoply of carceral systems. The floating island of buildings in Raft (2011) alludes to the formation of ad-hoc communities where the dispossessed inscribe purpose and hope through shared struggle. In Babylon (2005), Metropolis (2007), and Arc (2009) Thomasos evokes the domineering structures that encase faceless masses in global cities.
It is this union of the political with the visually abstract that brings into relief the historical reality of racism and the corollary inheritances of the present, building a puissant collection that relates to both the official carceral system of the American prison-industrial complex and the figurative incarceration of the economically oppressed.
Offering a cogent synthesis of the curators’ statements, essays detailing the artist’s progression through her career, a poignant collection of letters to the artist, a short biography, and a chronological presentation of Thomasos’ body of work featuring more than seventy high-quality images, co-curators Renée van der Avoird, Sally Frater, and Michelle Jacques successfully convey the spirit of the exhibition in this exceptional catalogue. Thomasos’ premature death at the age of forty-seven in 2012, was a profound loss. The accompanying exposition catalogue Denyse Thomasos: just beyond is a fitting celebration of a prolific artist.
Exhibition information: A joint presentation from The Art Gallery of Ontario and Remai Modern, Saskatoon, co-curated by Renée van der Avoird, Assistant Curator of Canadian Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario; guest curator Sally Frater, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Guelph; and Michelle Jacques, Head of Exhibitions & Collections/Chief Curator at Remai Modern.
Christina Barber is a writer and educator who lives in Vancouver. An avid reader, she shares her passion for Canadian history and literature through her reviews on Instagram @cb_reads_reviews. She has most recently been committed to writing and staging formally innovative single and multi-act plays.