The artist’s singular painterly style and monumental canvases explore the architecture of confinement – from prisons to slave ships and inner city housing
TORONTO — This fall, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) presents the first major retrospective of late Trinidadian-Canadian artist Denyse Thomasos. One of the finest painters to emerge in the 1990s, Thomasos had a singular style that employed abstraction as a means to explore contemporary issues of race, the architecture of confinement and our complex relationships to space and place, and the environment. Curated by Renée van der Avoird, Assistant Curator, Canadian Art, AGO; Sally Frater, Curator of Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of Guelph; and Michelle Jacques, Head of Exhibitions and Collections / Chief Curator, Remai Modern, Denyse Thomasos: just beyond is co-organized by the AGO and Remai Modern, Saskatoon. Free to AGO Members, Annual Pass holders, all Indigenous Peoples, and visitors aged 25 and under, AGO Members see it first when it opens Oct. 5.
Born in Trinidad and raised in Toronto, Thomasos (1964-2012) left an indelible mark on contemporary painting. When most painters of her generation were forsaking abstract language, she embraced it. Through pattern, scale, and repetition she conveys the vastness of events - such as the transatlantic slave trade - without exploiting the images of those who were most affected.
Since the 1990s, the AGO has maintained a sustained critical engagement with Thomasos’ work. The exhibition highlights not only numerous AGO acquisitions, but research gleaned from an academic symposium organized by the AGO in 2021 that helped reignite current interest in Thomasos’ work and propel her to the 2022 Whitney Biennial. Featuring loans from museums and private collections in Toronto, Montreal and New York City, curators worked closely with the artist’s family and gallerist, Olga Korper Gallery, to include rarely seen sketches, photographs and documentary footage of Thomasos working in her studio.
“Thomasos’ talent and ambition made her one of the finest painters of her generation and in the years since her passing, the relevance of her work has only increased. Her deep commitment to narratives of the Black experience, structures of authority and the architecture of surveillance, has only made her singular talent more prescient,” say co-curators van der Avoird, Frater and Jacques. “In documentary footage, in her diaries and in the interviews of those who knew her, a portrait of an exceptional artist arises. We look forward to celebrating and furthering her legacy.”
The exhibition will be accompanied by an illustrated hardcover 180 page catalogue, co-published by the AGO, Remai Modern and DelMonico Books • D.A.P., featuring essays by van der Avoird, Frater and Jacques along with contributions from Adrienne Edwards, Marsha Pearce and Denise Ryner. Denyse Thomasos: just beyond will be available in shopAGO later this fall.
Exhibition-related programming, including a curator talk, drop-in life drawing, select quiet hours and a teacher event, will be announced later this fall. Denyse Thomasos: just beyond will tour, including stops at the Remai Modern, Saskatoon in Spring 2023 and at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Denyse Thomasos: just beyond is free for AGO Members, Annual Passholders, all Indigenous Peoples and visitors aged 25 and under. AGO Members see it first beginning Oct. 5, 2022. Same day tickets can now be booked in person and online. For more details on how to book your tickets or to become a Member or Annual Passholder, visit ago.ca.
ABOUT THE EXHIBITION:
Highlighting Thomasos’ sustained engagement with structures of confinement, slavery, prisons, vernacular architecture and urban planning, Denyse Thomasos: just beyond is located on level five of the AGO’s Vivian & David Campbell Centre for Contemporary Art. Spanning four decades of artmaking, the exhibition features more than 70 paintings and works on paper from several series - including Excavations, Dwellings and Dismantle - alongside archival photographs, sketches, interviews and documentary footage of the artist at work.
The exhibition opens with a large-scale photograph of the artist at work. In 2005, while under renovation, the AGO invited contemporary artists to create site-specific wall works. For this project, Thomasos produced Hybrid Nations (2005), a massive mural that mixed computer-generated images with hand-painted details. This photo captures Thomasos at work, finessing the mural’s imagery – of cells, ribs, and walls around a roofless panopticon – that she hoped would remind viewers of the connection between the present-day prison industrial complex and the Transatlantic slave trade.
The exhibition will include a selection of Thomasos’ graduate student work. The looseness of her approach while studying at Yale University is evident in figurative works like Untitled (Self-portrait) (1984-85) and Sacrifice (1989). A haunting and unnerving scene, Sacrifice features a pile of human skulls, which thanks to gestural brushwork, fade into a muted background. This early work is among the first major paintings in which Thomasos directly references her research on slavery.
In the early 1990s, Thomasos was teaching art in Philadelphia – a period that also signaled her shift into abstraction. “The immediate experience of urban collapse had a psychological effect on my work,” she later reflected. It was during this period that she began researching mass incarceration. In Dos Amigos (Slave Boat) (1993), on loan from Cadillac Fairview, she introduces the gridded latticework and black marks that would characterize her mid-career work. These tight grids convey the inhumane, claustrophobic conditions of the boats that transported enslaved Africans to America. Rally (1994) with its bright colours, was inspired by the brightly painted row houses she was surrounded by in Philadelphia.
On loan from The Donovan Collection, at the University of St. Michael’s College, is Babylon (2005), a large-scale work reflective of the shifts happening in Thomasos’ work in the mid-2000s. New colours, a dense matrix of structures, and nods to graffiti and urban planning are seen. Religious references reoccur throughout Thomasos’ work. The title of this work is thought to reference the Mesopotamian City of the Old Testament.
In 2011, Thomasos returned to Ontario for a site-specific installation at Oakville Galleries, and on view are a selection of preparatory drawings from that exhibition done in acrylic on paper. These vivid plans suggest an attempt to reconcile futuristic green architecture, with race and class divides, and across them are scribbles of her own process notes – ‘moss insulation’, ‘green gardens’, ‘prisons as pods’.
Filmed and compiled by Thomasos’ widow Samein Priester, a selection of never-before-seen documentary footage showcases Thomasos at work in her studio. Interviews with co-curator Michelle Jacques, Thomasos’ former painting teacher Professor John Armstrong, and her former studio assistant Linda Martinello, provide commentary throughout.
The exhibition concludes with the imposing six-by-three meter canvas, Arc (2009). A recent AGO acquisition with the generous support of the Women’s Art Initiative, making its debut here, Arc reveals traces of the artist’s body through swoops, strokes and drips of paint. The largest scale she worked in, this canvas is the same size as Thomasos’ East Village, New York, studio wall.
ABOUT DENYSE THOMASOS
Born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, the acclaimed painter Denyse Thomasos was raised in Toronto and spent most of her professional career in New York City. Thomasos earned a BA in Painting and Art History from the University of Toronto in 1987. She attended the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture in 1988 and the following year completed her MFA in Painting and Sculpture, Yale School of Art, Yale University. Throughout her career she attended various residencies, such as the Ucross Foundation Artist Residency, in Ucross, Wyoming in 2000 and the Bogliasco Foundation Artist Residency in Genoa, Italy in 2003. She won numerous prestigious awards, including the Guggenheim Fellowship Prize in 1997; the Joan Mitchell Foundation award in 1998; and the New York Foundation for the Arts award in 2008; as well as grants from both the Canada Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work has been collected by private collectors, as well as major corporate and public institutions, including Rutgers University, New Jersey; Canada Council Art Bank, Ottawa; Bank of Montreal, Toronto; Banque Nationale du Canada, Montreal; Art Gallery of Guelph; Oakville Galleries; the Hart House Collection at the University of Toronto, and private collections throughout Canada and the United States. When Thomasos died tragically in 2012, she was at the height of her career, with major museum shows, a full professorship, New York and Toronto gallery representation, and many prestigious awards and residencies. The Estate of Denyse Thomasos is represented by Olga Korper Gallery, Toronto.
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This exhibition has been co-organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario and Remai Modern, Saskatoon.
McCarthy Tétrault LLP
Bob & Angel Harding
Women’s Art Initiative
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Greg & Susan Guichon
The Gerald Sheff and Shanitha Kachan Charitable Foundation
Contemporary programming at the AGO generously supported by the Canada Council of the Arts.
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ABOUT THE AGO
Located in Toronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario is one of the largest art museums in North America, attracting approximately one million visitors annually. The AGO Collection of more than 120,000 works of art ranges from cutting-edge contemporary art to significant works by Indigenous and Canadian artists and European masterpieces. The AGO presents wide-ranging exhibitions and programs, including solo exhibitions and acquisitions by diverse and underrepresented artists from around the world. In 2019, the AGO launched a bold new initiative designed to make the museum even more welcoming and accessible with the introduction of free admission for anyone 25 years and under and a $35 annual pass. Visit AGO.ca to learn more.
The AGO is funded in part by the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. Additional operating support is received from the City of Toronto, the Canada Council for the Arts and generous contributions from AGO Members, donors and private-sector partners.
ABOUT REMAI MODERN
Remai Modern is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Traditional Homeland of the Métis. We pay our respects to First Nations and Métis ancestors and reaffirm our relationship with one another.
Remai Modern is a new museum of modern and contemporary art in Saskatoon. The museum presents and collects local and international modern and contemporary art that connects, inspires, and challenges diverse audiences through equitable and accessible programs.
Open since October 2017, Remai Modern is the largest contemporary art museum in western Canada and houses a collection of more than 8,000 works, including the world’s foremost collection of Picasso linocut prints.
Remai Modern would like to acknowledge the contributions of the Frank & Ellen Remai Foundation, the Canada Council for the Arts, SaskCulture through the Sask Lotteries Fund, SK Arts and the City of Saskatoon.
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