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‘My Art Is about Survival’

Eleven years after her death at 47, a retrospective of Denyse Thomasos’s art questions what we value, and what we leave behind.

Dorothy Woodend 1 Dec 2023The Tyee

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor at The Tyee.

The retrospective of painter Denyse Thomasos at the Vancouver Art Gallery is big. And by that, I mean huge. Many of the Trinidadian-Canadian artist’s works stretch 20 feet across. Stand too close, and it’s easy to feel like you might fall in.

The cross-hatched style that Thomasos created — dense, graphic, almost overwhelming in its sheer physicality — makes it hard to believe that the artist herself is no longer here. Thomasos died suddenly in 2012 from an allergic reaction to a dye used in a medical procedure. At the time, she was living and working in New York City. She was 47 years old.

The retrospective entitled Denyse Thomasos: just beyond, organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario, premiered last year and was introduced at the VAG’s opening by three of the curators who were close to the artist. It is a resplendent celebration both of Thomasos’s creative output and of painting itself. The more than 70 works on display run the gamut from large-scale epics to more intimate explorations of ideas jotted down in sketchbooks and journals.

Some of the most fascinating parts of the show are also the humblest — items like the shoes that she preferred to paint in, family photos and a newly discovered video of Thomasos at work in her studio. At one point in the film, she is shown sitting, rubbing her forehead in deep thought or maybe just plain old exhaustion. It’s a reminder that art of this magnitude, scale and complexity is brutally hard.

An acrylic painting is dense with square shapes arranged across the canvas in grey, green and blue.
Denyse Thomasos, Dismantle #2, 1998, acrylic on canvas. Image via the Art Gallery of Ontario, gift of Richard and Donna Ivey, 2019. Copyright the Estate of Denyse Thomasos and Olga Korper Gallery.

Born in Trinidad, Thomasos moved to Toronto with her family when she was a child. She grew up in a middle-class neighbourhood, where she and her sister were the only Black kids in their elementary school. These early experiences had a profound effect on Thomasos.

In her artist’s statement, produced for a 2012 exhibition of her larger work, she wrote:

My early artwork was both an attempt to capture the emotion of isolation and a means to learn about myself with respect to Black culture, history and politics.... My father was a brilliant physicist and mathematician whom I saw suffer under racism in Canada.... I thought of my father to be a compelling character, a typical immigrant story of hard work and, ultimately, the sacrifice of one’s own life for his family’s well-being and potential.

Thomasos started seriously painting at the age of 16. Even her earliest work contained clear indicators of the artist she would become. A self-portrait made while she was still a student has an easy forthrightness as well as a firm grasp of technique. As she faces down the viewer, one foot is propped up on a frame, the other grounded and solid. Her control and facility are both immediate and uncompromising.

Organized in chronological fashion, the exhibit allows for a journey alongside the artist’s development as her interests and style changed and evolved. It’s a fascinating perambulation. Certain themes figure large, such as Thomasos’s abiding interest in the impacts of the slave trade, and the intersections between architecture and social justice. And then there’s the language of pure abstraction — line, colour, form and something else more propulsive. Call it momentum and an artist’s drive, or what poet Dylan Thomas called “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”

A large-format acrylic painting consists of dense square and rectangular shapes scored with horizontal stripes in jewel tones.
Denyse Thomasos, Rally, 1994, acrylic on canvas. Photo by Andre Beneteau, courtesy and copyright the Estate of Denyse Thomasos and Olga Korper Gallery.

Another ongoing source of exploration for Thomasos was the construction of prisons and other carceral facilities. In the paintings dedicated to exploring and revealing the underlying qualities of these spaces, the work is almost unbearably claustrophobic, like a monstrous cage constructed of rebar and black girding, with grid systems that block off space with iron implacability. But there is tenderness as well. At the edge of the work, Thomasos often left a blank unmodelled area, like a place of respite, somewhere to breathe.

As much as her work is graphically powerful, hatched over and through with black, Thomasos was also a colourist. But the colour in her work served a narrative function. Many of the pastel hues prominent in her work were derived from the institutional paint colours used in prisons and other facilities. The baby pink and mint green were thought to have a calming effect on inmates. But in Thomasos’s work, the effect is quite different. The squares of colour, ringed round with thick black outlines, have an almost subversive quality.

An abstract painting depicts an architectural structure with a green set of stairs to the left and, at centre towards the bottom of the frame, a baby-pink basement.
Denyse Thomasos, Untitled (Kingdom Come), 2011, acrylic on paper. Photo by Craig Boyko, copyright the Estate of Denyse Thomasos and Olga Korper Gallery.

In the latter part of her career, Thomasos began to travel extensively, discovering another source of inspiration in the form of different built structures. In Africa, Asia and India, the means, methods and materials that people used to construct homes and villages found their way into Thomasos’s work. These later works, while still bearing the same rigorous technique, feel more hopeful and open.

Despite the volume of her output, Thomasos wasn’t widely known when she died. Exactly why this is the case isn’t hard to discern. As a woman of colour, she had to fight hard just for recognition.

New York Times writer Adrienne Edwards, who championed Thomasos’s work at the Whitney Biennial, writes about this obscurity: “Some of the most unspeakable themes in her art do not always concern events of great magnitude. I would say the most unsettling one, the one that unmoors me — quiet as it’s kept — is what it means to have been unremarked upon. In the scale of her paintings she made herself incapable of being overlooked, undermined or ignored, even to those who couldn’t fathom who she was or what she did. Not all confinements are physical.”

An acrylic painting depicts a giant grey claw-like structure crushing an architectural structure across the frame.
Denyse Thomasos, Metropolis, 2007, acrylic, charcoal, porous-point marker on canvas. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario, copyright the Estate of Denyse Thomasos and Olga Korper Gallery.

In another video that features Thomasos’s colleagues and mentors, one of her professors remembers her habit of climbing up on a stool to make her points in student critiques.

The force of her personality — her humour, energy and ambition — endure. But the paintings themselves resound with compulsive force and a kind of kinetic energy that burns like a brand upon the brain.

Of her creations, the artist said: “At their core, my art is about survival: how a psychologically broken spirit can thrive in spite of its own complexities.”

At the exhibition opening, Thomasos’s family, friends and colleagues remembered her. But the atmosphere wasn’t elegiac or mournful. It was joyous just to be in the presence of such powerful work, emanating out like a force field, a reminder of what painting can do and can be, really.

The references and informing ideas are present and clear, but beyond that, there is something else. In describing the genesis of the show, curator Michelle Jacques, Thomasos’s longtime friend and head of exhibitions and collections at the Remai Modern gallery in Saskatoon, said the paintings reminded her of the capacity of brilliant artists to see beyond where we are now to another world.

Someplace there’s a better, brighter, bigger picture.

‘Denyse Thomasos: just beyond’ runs until March 24 at the Vancouver Art Gallery.  [Tyee]

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