Denyse Thomasos, Virtual Incarceration, 1999, acrylic on canvas, 11 × 20'.

Denyse Thomasos, Virtual Incarceration, 1999, acrylic on canvas, 11 × 20'.

Denyse Thomasos

Both abstract and gestural, figurative and architectural, the works of Trinidadian Canadian painter Denyse Thomasos (1964–2012) vibrate with the punitive potential of human structures. It was fitting, then, that this retrospective of the late artist’s oeuvre opened with a photograph of Thomasos at work on Hybrid Nations, 2005, a large-scale mural whose composition is dominated by a computer rendering of a sage-green panopticon. Single-storied, unlike Jeremy Bentham’s prototype, Thomasos’s edifice has quadrants that radiate from the center with varied geometric forms—including the graphic demarcations for a basketball court—while its walls are made from densely layered bars evoking jail cells or slaughterhouses. Around this central wheel, the artist has painted interlocking rectangular shapes that bend and transform into gestural patches suggesting graffiti, the hull of a ship, a rickety hallway, or a skeletal form (a rib cage? a serpent’s bones?). The documentation of the painting, which is no longer extant, attests to the continued resonance of Thomasos’s investigations into the frameworks of power, more than ten years after her death.

Among these investigations in “Just Beyond,” a carefully curated show of Thomasos’s work at the Art Gallery of Ontario, is Virtual Incarceration, 1999. At eleven by twenty feet—the dimensions of the biggest wall in the artist’s East Village studio in New York, where she spent the later part of her career—it was one of the largest canvases on view and is composed entirely of interlocking grids assembled at tight angles to suggest a kind of Brutalist penitentiary. In some areas the painting’s surface is suffocatingly overloaded with superimposed grids, while in others hallways and passages are delineated with spare rectilinear pulls of paint, which are separated by ample expanses of negative space. Here, Thomasos invokes the modernist myth of the grid as ground zero for experiments in abstraction, only to reveal the motif’s more oppressive physical and intellectual characteristics. Lines in nearly identical hues are often layered over one another, allowing the acrylic paint to drip down the canvas in long thin lines. Josef Albers’s color theory is at work here, but one can also feel the influence of Anselm Kiefer’s monumental ruined landscapes and Luis Cruz Azaceta’s polychromatic renderings of dense and crumbling urban scenes.  

One of Thomasos’s remarkable skills as a painter was to create a feeling of compactness and dynamism through a restrained repertoire of gestures and colors. (Video interviews with the artist’s former studio assistants, mentors, and colleagues helped explicate her working methods.) Recurring architectural motifs—slave ships, prisons, cave dwellings, and staircases—ground the work when it threatens to dissolve into full-on abstraction. But the spaces of near dissolution, such as the group of skulls assembled in the center of Arc, 2009, are also where Thomasos’s compositions stop the viewer dead in their tracks.

Amid these epic landscapes was a selection of smaller works, including a suite of acrylic paintings on paper. These pieces, completed during a 2000 residency in Wyoming, were rendered in a subdued palette of grays, earthy browns, black, moss green, and crimson. Elsewhere was a collection of studies featuring indigenous buildings the artist encountered during her travels to China, India, Indonesia, and South America; the images point to Thomasos’s ability to work across scales and to her voracious curiosity regarding non-Western architecture. The exhibition concluded with several “late works” (the phrase is painful to write, given her untimely death at the age of forty-seven) by the artist, including Babylon, 2005, in which the geometric rigidity of her forms had loosened. Here, Thomasos prioritizes the sweeping gestural inflections of her brush, which produce textures that suggest impermanence, urban ruin, or the passage of time—aspects that attest to the artist’s uncanny ability to conjure those things that lay, indeed, just beyond.