A Late Canadian Painter Finally Gets Her Due

Inside “Denyse Thomasos: just beyond,” AGO’s Thrilling New Exhibition

In a 2013 column in the Toronto Star, visual arts critic Murray Whyte gushed about the late Denyse Thomasos’ Burial at Goree—“a colossal, violent abstraction that seems to contain an imploding urbanscape.” Then, he issued a challenge: “After an outstanding small show in Barrie this past summer, any sane person could make a reasonable argument to bring it back as part of a much, much bigger one. Over to you, AGO.”

Nine years later, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and Remai Modern in Saskatoon have answered the call: Denyse Thomasos: just beyond, a “first-ever career retrospective” of the Trinidadian-Canadian artist’s work, now on at AGO. Although Burial at Goree is not among the paintings, the exhibition includes more than 70 works throughout her storied career, as well as never-before-seen journals, sketchbooks, and videos, which offer a glimpse into her process. 

Even through a cracked phone screen, one can sense the power of her paintings. But up close and in person, her work assumes epic, awe-inspiring proportions. In Metropolis, from 2007, a storm-grey building is transformed into what looks like a hulking arachnid, ravaging the city. In Arc, from 2009, a cityscape explodes in a tangle of thick brushstrokes and neat architectural lines. Among them, disembodied heads with their mouths agape float like lost souls, a nod, the label says, to “systemic racism and structures of oppression.”

Both are themes woven into her paintings throughout her career. In fact, even many of her most abstract works are explicitly political. In Dos Amigos (Slave Boat), for example, Thomasos captures the horrors of slavery through a black-and-white painting of layered latticework. Elsewhere in the exhibition, she wrestles with poverty, mass surveillance, and the prison-industrial complex. This is what just beyond deems the “aesthetics of survival.”

“More and more, I recognize that my interest in imprisonment in the outside world actually stems from my own feelings of isolation and the ways I have had to survive that,” Thomasos said in 2011. “With every line, every mark, it’s a language that I weave together to survive.”

Born in 1964, Thomasos and her family left Trinidad and Tobago for Toronto in the 1970’s. By age 15, she was painting. And in 1984, she enrolled at the University of Toronto Mississauga, where she flourished as a young artist and activist. She never lived in Toronto again, but her time here was formative.

Although Thomasos died at 47, at the peak of her career and without ever having become a household name, she left a legacy of brilliance. just beyond celebrates that legacy, giving a late great Canadian painter her due.

Denyse Thomasos: just beyond is on now until February 20, 2023 at AGO.