Dennis Thomasos Haunting Retrospective at Art Gallery of Ontario – | Catch My Job


Too often, a retrospective comes too late. Such is the case with “Just Beyond,” a survey of the work of the late Trinidadian Canadian painter Denise Thomasos at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Carefully assembled, the exhibition of acrylics on canvas, works on paper, and archival materials (personal photographs, sketchbooks) traces the artist’s early ventures into his student work and his murals and later bold formalist abstractions.

While “Just Beyond”‘s career-spanning selections illuminate key stylistic developments, Thomasos’ subjects—particularly the architecture of cages, boats, and scaffolding—flow through this hierarchy. Throughout his career, Thomasos revisited the places he traveled in color, trying to understand how indigenous sites and domestic structures around the world — Dogon caves, Jodhpuri roofs, and boats on the Yangtze River — could serve as reminders of resistance and resilience, even in the face of structural oppression. Inspired by his journey, these works speak to Thomasos’ feelings of isolation and displacement as part of his struggle to adapt as a Caribbean expatriate in Canada (and later as a Canadian citizen in the United States) and his family. Finding shelter and other means of survival was as much a personal as an artistic necessity. In his own words, “With every line, every mark, it’s a language I’m weaving together to survive.”

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An angular building of metal and glass is visible nearby.

Here’s an epic mural to see, Ark (2009), combines Thomasos’ signature motifs. A rib cage of lines curves over the 20-foot-wide composition, which otherwise features piles of shapes shaped like elements of a cityscape beneath which small boats emerge; Skulls yawn and roll across and off the canvas. The work draws from such previous pieces Sacrifice (1989), an allegorical painting about a West African slave prison depicting a black horse hanging from the ceiling in a sling above a pile of human skulls.

Although Thomasos is clearly interested in constructed forms, his work is conceptually invested in non-construction, as seen throughout the 1998 series “Dismantle”. These compositions feature dark, restrained colors and voids in cuboid structures that recall prison architecture. By their title, the paintings call for the separation of systems of confinement that the artist shows to be omnipresent. The largest of the series, six feet square, is Dismantling #1, The loose, perspective cage features multiple color fields, dominated by black, brown and white, evoking housing complexes. Interspersed with long drops of paint and deliberate lines, the ad seemingly replicates infinity, such as large housing units and the dense populations contained within them.

A colorful horizontal painting composed of boomerang-shaped structures.  Small rectilinear and circular structures are distributed throughout the rest of the canvas, more distinct towards the center and more abstract towards the top.

Dennis Thomasos, Ark2009, acrylic on canvas, 132 by 240 inches.

Photo by Michael Cullen/©The Estate of Denise Thomasos and Olga Corper Gallery

The final room of the exhibition shows how Thomasos moved from specific to broad structural allusions in his largest works. Dos Amigos (Slave Boat)1993 – named after a 19th-century ship that transported enslaved Africans to Cuba – laid aside Virtual imprisonment (1999). The former marks Thomasos’ shift from figuration to abstraction; Strong black and white lines comprise a tight, gridded closeup of a boat that stretches across the canvas, washing over the viewer. In the latter, by contrast, squiggly lines penetrate the white background, visualizing systemic confinement more closely resembling a digital rendering.

An installation scene in a gallery shows three large horizontal paintings hanging across perpendicular walls.  All are dominated by cross-hatching that suggests a stacked cuboid form.  The painting on the left is black and white and the one on the right is in different colors.

View of “Dennis Thomasos: Just Beyond,” 2022-23, showing at the Art Gallery of Ontario Virtual imprisonment1999, left.

©The Estate of Denise Thomasos and Olga Korper Gallery/Photo ©AGO

The grids and lines throughout this painting are not only tied to modernism in an art historical sense: they address modernist systems of urban planning, social control, and segregation. Thomasos also mixes this motif of formal abstraction with history imagery through deeply personal and political gestures. Undergrids are exposed, parallel lines drip clearly, and subjects reveal their skeletal souls in all these works, where building and body are inseparable; Although figures do not appear in most of Thomasos’ paintings, their absence is overwhelmingly felt and understood as extinguished by the remaining structures, which must eventually fall.

It is in Thomasos’ last work, from 2012, that his allover marks are most overwhelming, seemingly zoomed in for emphasis. Large blocks and broad stripes of solid color—bubblegum pink, chartreuse, mauve—fill the canvases and stand out, their grids now less prominent but their composition no less constrained. Given Thomasos’ death at the age of 47 in 2012, we can only imagine what these works might have become. In all, he leaves us with a haunting formal synthesis of the harsh and violent reality of slavery.


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