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Painting and the World: A Remembrance of Denyse Thomasos

Denyse Thomasos in front of her painting "Babylon" (2005) (Image courtesy Olga Korper gallery)
Denyse Thomasos in front of her painting “Babylon” (2005) (Image courtesy Olga Korper gallery)

Editor’s note: Artist Denyse Thomasos passed away in July of 2012. A memorial will be held in her honor today at 6 PM at Rutgers’s Department of Arts, Culture, and Media, in Bradley Hall’s second floor, at 110 Warren Street in Newark, New Jersey.

Denyse Thomasos told me a story once of going with her uncle, back in her native Trinidad, to the Chinese club, for locals of Chinese descent. She turned to me and her eyebrows rose and eyes widened as a smile slowly came over face, “We went in, and they were all black!”

While this anecdote never seems to have made it into her art, it embodies her fascination, amusement, and curiosity about the world and its unexpected reversals. It was the same voice, and look of astonishment, she would use when she spoke of discovering that the interior railings and stairwells of super-max prisons in the U.S. are often painted in pastel-primary colors. It was the enthusiasm of an explorer alert to nuances and absurdities that locals, grown used to them, would forget were there. They were also details that pointed to monstrosities present and past, like the brutal forced immigration of labor in Trinidad’s colonial days replayed in the micro-nuances of contemporary ethnic hierarchies and her adopted country’s decision to lock up more of its population than any other nation on earth. Other experiences, like her study of hand-built mud houses in India, pointed to resourcefulness, an ability to make a home out of what, to a Westerner, would seem like nothing.

Denyse Thomasos, "Displaced Burial" (1993) (Image courtesy Olga Korper gallery)
Denyse Thomasos, “Displaced Burial” (1993) (Image courtesy Olga Korper gallery)

On first meeting Thomasos at an artist’s colony in December of 2000, she grilled me about the previous artist who used her studio, a Mongolian ink-brush artist named Qin Feng. He had left behind some materials, inks, and a couple of worn-out Chinese brushes, and, if recollection serves, she had brought only an 11-by-17-inch pad of graph paper and a few pens and pencils. She was quite private about her work in the studio, but she wanted to know about Qin, about his work, what he looked like, whether he painted only Mandarin characters or images. At the end of the residency, as she got ready to leave, Thomasos let me see what she’d done in the cabin. The walls and furniture were covered in ink, with drawings of floorplans and questions about Qin, and her own family roots, as if his presence in the cabin the previous month rendered him akin to an ancestor.

Denyse Thomasos, "Metropolis" (2007) (Image courtesy Olga Korper gallery)
Denyse Thomasos, “Metropolis” (2007) (Image courtesy Olga Korper gallery)

When I asked her about it, she said it was only a sketch, that she had come without materials to see what she could make without her usual acrylics and canvas, a test-run for the wall-works she wanted to move into making. It was all practice for her next show. A few days after returning to New York, she made her first public wall drawing in a three-person show at Lennon-Weinberg, a gallery then located in Soho. It showed mostly fragments of architectural structures in black and white and looked elegant in comparison to the frenzied feel of her cabin drawing. What I remember most was a long black mark she had painted onto the ceiling with a pole-extended twelve-inch roller; the mark kept going for yards and yards, claiming what seemed like half the gallery, for who would dare hang a painting on the wall beneath such a territorial marker?

Thomasos’s training as a classical abstract painter, as an MFA student at Yale and then in her apprentice years in Philadelphia, where she taught at Tyler alongside the established abstractionists Dona Nelson and Stanley Whitney, gave her a fluid confidence with paint, an ability to make a convincing mark, generally a straight, fast line, that could convey decisiveness and sensuality all at once, like the handwriting on a novelist’s love-letter.

Her early paintings were full of skulls, slaving ships, and general disaster. They were direct, honest statements of grief about her father’s sudden death weeks before she started grad school, and there was more than a little anger in them about his displaced professional ambitions, frustrated by the polite racism he encountered in Toronto. The more literal symbols that characterized her work as an MFA student gave way, after a few years, to gridded patterns, accretions of fast brushstrokes painted at varying angles and in varying tints to convey both an allover color field and a monumental stack of cages. Her goal was to convey a feeling of the world’s truths through its structures, in part because structures intertwined well with her linear way of painting. Even at their most abstract, that sense of architecture remained within her pieces. It was these paintings that brought her work to prominence in the mid-‘90s.

Denyse Thomasos, "Kingdom Come" (2011), in situ wall painting at Oakville Galleries (Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid)
Denyse Thomasos, “Kingdom Come” (2011), in situ wall painting at Oakville Galleries (Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid)

Thomasos’s shift to wall paintings around 2000 was also a shift away from studio practice in the traditional sense. Thomasos’s travels and cultural investigations, the ‘research’ that was so central to her practice (reminiscent of the literary journeys of her controversial countryman V.S. Naipaul early in his career) left her feeling that traditional abstract painting was too limited for the experience she was trying to describe. Her choice to make wall-works the central part of her practice was both a rejection of painting and a way to extend it.

Her appetite for travel was immense and her collection of photos from around the world vast. In a way, her travel had begun with her move to the United States, to Yale, Philadelphia, then New York, away from her family’s adopted territory of Mississauga, Ontario. As a double-immigrant, from Trinidad to Canada to the U.S., Thomasos was keenly aware of discrepancies and hierarchies that might be overlooked by natives, but that often underlay an entire set of closed and open opportunities. Part of the meaning of her work lay in the way she negotiated the various expectations placed on her by different parts of the cultural world. Most artists working at her professional level (with major museum shows, a full professorship, New York and Toronto gallery representation, and a stack of prestigious awards and residencies) are aware of how their background and artistic choices open some doors and close others. But as a Caribbean-American female abstract painter, with a history in Canada but based in New York, she had to negotiate a particularly complicated set of expectations, which she did not only well but also with a great sense of humor. She joked with the same sense of surprise about the Trinidadian Chinese Club as she did about the varied expectations of artists, dealers, and curators in Vienna, Toronto, and Chelsea.

Detail of Denyse Thomasos's "Kingdom Come" (2011), in situ wall painting at Oakville Galleries (Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid)
Detail of Denyse Thomasos’s “Kingdom Come” (2011), in situ wall painting at Oakville Galleries (Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid)

The question she faced throughout her career, the one that led her towards wall-works, is one that many artists grapple with, and is particularly acute for painters: how to reconcile her interest in politics with her calling as an artist. The vast scale of her major works, both on canvas and on walls, was a way to confront this. To be engulfed by the mixture of floorplans, architectural renderings, and illusionistic spaces that could be read as a twig hut or a spaceship was to feel oneself inside a whale. It is not that they captured the scale of the world, but they were of a scale just beyond one person’s ability to take in all the world, its joys and suffering.

Her wall works were also a way to compress the painting part of her practice as well, to paint in weeks more square footage than most painters cover in months, even years. But the compression was required to allow time for the research, the travelling, photographing, and, in recent years, the bureaucratic effort required to be permitted, as an artist, to visit prisons throughout the United States.

It was in the depths of the Bush years that she began researching jails. Thomasos became fascinated with the prison architecture that began to grow as the United States’s incarceration rate climbed after Nixon declared war on drugs in 1971 and skyrocketed after Reagan’s 1984 Sentencing Reform Act. In particular, she began visiting super-max sites, photographing them when permitted and learning about them at academic conferences. After one penal reform conference she was full of praise for the sociologists — they were such amazing networkers, she laughed. And while part of that laughter was professional admiration (in both her art and academic careers she was well aware of the value and importance of dialogue with a broad array of colleagues), it was also a validation of her years of research as a major part of her artistic practice. That admiration also came from a realization that the academics weren’t only networking for their careers, but to more effectively combat our criminal-industrial system.

Considering she died so suddenly, it is hard not to feel that Denyse’s work was cut short. She was in the middle of a project that was changing and growing, and that, in the summer months before her death, she spoke of expanding with renewed zeal. While her legacy was abbreviated, she left us with an enduring model of engaged practice, of the way that an artist honors their medium and the world. It was this hunger to learn, to experience the world and bring that back, in ever-inventive ways, to the act of painting, that, for me, is her strongest artistic legacy.

Artist Denyse Thomasos died in July of 2012. A memorial for her will be held today at 6 PM at The Department of Arts, Culture, and Media, in Bradley Hall’s second floor, at 110 Warren Street in Newark, New Jersey.

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