All too often a retrospective comes too late. Such is the case with Just Beyond, a survey of the late Canadian painter from Trinidad’s work Denyse Thomasos In the Art Gallery of Ontario. The carefully curated exhibition of acrylic on canvas, works on paper, and archival materials (personal photographs, sketchbooks) follows the artist from her student work and early attempts at allegorical figuration to her murals and later bold formalist abstractions.
While Just Beyond’s career-wide selection highlights key stylistic developments, Thomasos’ themes – particularly the architecture of cages, boats and scaffolding – flow through these classifications. Throughout her career, Thomasos revisited the places she traveled in painting, trying to find a sense of how indigenous sites and dwellings around the world—Dogon caves, Jodhpuri rooftops, and boats on the Yangtze River—were used as a reminder of resistance and resilience. also in the face of structural oppression. These works, which inspired her travels, also speak of Thomasos’ feelings of alienation and displacement as part of the Caribbean diaspora in Canada (and later as a Canadian citizen in the United States) and her family’s struggle to assimilate. The search for other forms of refuge and survival was both a personal and an artistic necessity. In her own words, “With every line, every character, it’s a language I weave together to survive.”
An epic mural can be seen here, bow (2009), summarizes the characteristic motifs of Thomasos. A ribcage of lines curves across the 20-foot-wide composition, which otherwise features stacks of forms like the elements of a cityscape, with small boats jutting out from beneath; Skulls yawn and roll over and off the screen. The work draws from earlier pieces such as sacrifice (1989), an allegorical painting about slave prisons in West Africa, depicting a black horse hanging from the ceiling in a noose above a pile of human skulls.
Although Thomasos is clearly interested in built forms, her work is conceptually invested in the act of disbuilding, as seen throughout the 1998 series Dismantle. These compositions are characterized by dark, reserved colors and focus on cuboid structures reminiscent of prison architecture. With their titles, the paintings call for breaking down the systems of confinement that the artist shows to be ubiquitous. The largest of the series is six feet square Dismantling #1, featuring a field of loose, perspective cages in multiple colors, dominated by black, brown, and white, reminiscent of apartment complexes. Long drips of paint and intentional lines intersect, seemingly endlessly replicating how units in massive apartment buildings and the dense population they contain.
The final room of the exhibition shows how Thomasos shifted from specific to broader structural allusions in some of her greatest works. Dos Amigos (slave boat)1993—named after a 19th-century ship that transported enslaved Africans to Cuba—is written next to it Virtual Detention (1999). The former marks Thomasos’ transition from figuration to abstraction; confident black and white lines form a tight, gridded close-up of a boat that extends from the canvas and washes over the viewer. In contrast, in the latter, insidious lines draw across the white background, visualizing the systemic confinement in a manner more akin to a digital rendering.
The grids and lines in these paintings are not only connected to modernism in an art historical sense: they address modernist systems of urban planning, social control and segregation. Thomasos also connects this motif of formalistic abstraction with history painting through deeply personal and political gestures. In all of these works, in which building and body are inseparable, sublattices are exposed, parallel lines drip expressively, and motifs reveal their skeletal selves. While figures do not appear in most of Thomasos’ paintings, their absence is felt overwhelmingly and understood as obliterated by the remaining structures that must ultimately fall.
In Thomasos’ most recent work, from 2012, her all-over markings are at their most adamant, seemingly zoomed in for emphasis. Large blocks and wide monochromatic stripes – bubblegum pink, chartreuse, mauve – fill the canvases and stand out brightly, their grids are now less noticeable, but their composition is no less constrained. Given the death of Thomasos in 2012 at the age of 47, we can only imagine what might have come after these works. All in all, she has left us with a haunting formal synthesis of the harsh and violent realities of enslavement.