The late Denyse Thomasos was a prolific painter

Art | Gregory Beatty

Denyse Thomasos’ Arc, 2009.

Denyse Thomasos: just beyond
Remai Modern
Until Sept. 3

“Frequently overlooked” is the phrase Remai Modern settled on to describe the late Trinidadian-Canadian painter Denyse Thomasos, the subject of this career retrospective co-organized by Remai Modern with the Art Gallery of Ontario.

“Under-recognized” is another word they considered, said Remai Modern curator Michelle Jacques in a recent phone interview.

“When you look at Denyse’s bio, it creates a bit of a disconnect, because it’s very evident that she did a lot in her lifetime. It’s more a case of how remarkable her work is and how she probably should have received more attention,” says Jacques.

“Denyse was incredibly active, and well-collected. She showed in museums and taught at two major universities (Temple and Rutgers). But she was at a point when she passed away that she was about to have that bigger breakthrough, which was something she always aspired to,” says Jacques.

Portraits to Prisons

Thomasos was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago in 1964. When she was six, she moved with her family to Toronto where her father got a master’s degree in physics at University of Waterloo and taught high school.

Jacques co-curated just beyond with Sally Frater (Art Gallery of Guelph) and Renée van der Avoird (Art Gallery of Ontario). When they were doing background research, says Jacques, they learned Thomasos began taking drawing lessons as a teenager.

“When Denyse was an undergrad at U of T Mississauga, she was working figuratively. At one point, she even drew portraits at Canada’s Wonderland. She ended up painting in an abstract manner, but she really emerges out of that youthful interest in drawing and capturing likenesses,” says Jacques.

When Thomasos completed her master’s degree at Yale in 1989, she was still working figuratively, says Jacques.

“It wasn’t until she moved to Philadelphia that she started figuring out an abstract language she could use,” she says. “One reference we came across was Willem de Kooning (1904–1997). It’s maybe kind of unusual, considering how political her work was on race and the Black experience, for her to acknowledge a Dutch American abstract expressionist painter.”

The first time I ever saw paintings that made complete sense to me was the de Kooning show, the quote from Thomasos reads. I saw that de Kooning understood painting so thoroughly that he was communicating through what wasn’t there.

“That is key to what became Denyse’s breakthrough language in the 1990s,” says Jacques.

“She was doing research into the structure and hold of slave ships. She was also researching prisons, and these were spaces that constrained and imprisoned the Black body. But she’s not painting the body anymore. She’s trying to understand painting so thoroughly that she’s communicating through what isn’t there,” says Jacques.

While de Kooning may have been an inspiration for Thomasos, his actual influence is muted. Hints sometimes show up in Thomasos’s work. But generally, there’s a much stronger sense of line in her paintings that make them seem more like hybrid drawings/paintings.

“In the 1990s Denyse went through a period where she was really focussed on the grid. Later, she starts integrating the grid into compositions that look like they’re built up of architectural drawings with structures that look like coffins or boats,” says Jacques.

Strung together in tightly packed rows, as in Dismantle #2 (1998), the grids resemble a multi-tiered prison interior with a nod perhaps to the architecture of crowded inner-city tenements.

“In one of Denyse’s sketchbooks we found a passage where she talks about the prison cell with the cage and bars, and thinks through ideas of containment and constriction. She’s doing that in terms of the experience of imprisoned people, but she’s also thinking about it metaphorically in her own experience,” says Jacques.

Dismantle #2 measures 160 x 183 cm. Other works in the show are similarly sized, or larger. There is a horror vacui quality to many of them too, with Thomasos pushing paint into all corners of the canvas. The scale, combined with the intensity of Thomasos’s compositions, pack a definite psychological punch as she lays bare the inhumanity of the global slave trade and the prison-industrial complex.

Travel and Tribute

Thomasos’s life and career took another turn in 2001, says Jacques.

“She would have been in New York when the Twin Towers came down. Shortly after that, she starts travelling the world. I can’t remember if we found any notes in her diaries that indicated she wanted to leave because of the aftermath of 9/11, but she did go to a lot of destinations connected to her own cultural history,” says Jacques.

“While a lot were connected to a Black experience and legacies of slavery, as someone from Trinidad she was actually mixed race, so her travels took her not just to Africa, but China and India and other places where a lot of what she was looking at was local architecture,” says Jacques.

“We have some photographs from her travels in the show, and you can see how built structures in those places influence what ends up in her paintings.”

Married and raising an adopted child with her husband, Thomasos died suddenly from an allergic reaction at age 47 in 2012. Two memorial exhibitions were held at the time, but this retrospective gives Thomasos her true due.

The exhibition has its origins in a visit the AGO’s Renée van der Avoird made to Thomasos’ long-time art dealer in Toronto Olga Korper Gallery, says Jacques.

“Denyse’s sister had just brought in a number of paintings that she’d found at her home or at their mother’s home. Some were from Denyse’s university days. It was in learning about her foundation in representational painting that Renée thought we could do something really interesting.”

After being contacted to consult on the exhibition, Jacques and Remai Modern ultimately decided to partner with the AGO to present the show. When just beyond opened in Toronto last fall, it received rave reviews, including a shout-out from the venerable ARTnews in New York.

“Two of Denyse’s paintings were in the Whitney Biennial in New York last summer as well,” says Jacques. “They were at the start of the exhibition, and very striking. Curator Adrienne Edwards was in the process of developing an interest in Denyse’s work, and the Whitney has since acquired one of the paintings.

“Denyse is finally getting the international attention that she craved,” says Jacques.

And deserved. ■