John Armstrong

Denyse Thomasos
“Mud,” Toronto, Ottawa Art Gallery and Olga Korper Gallery, Toronto

Three Ontario exhibitions this past fall afford an overview of Denyse Thomasos's recent paintings. These works continue the Philadelphia-based, Trinidad Canadian artist's longstanding interest in engaging the histories and methodologies of painting to give visual form to African American culture. While living in Toronto in the mid 80s, Thomasos painted several permanent murals whose Caravaggesque complexion has more recently given way to an extended range of art historical references subtly combined in mural-scaled paintings that treat space in a highly theatrical manner.

Fairmount Jail (1992), exhibited in “Mud,” an artist-initiated, Toronto exhibition, makes reference to a defunct, turn-of-the-century Philadelphia jail. This work completed a series of paintings that recreates a sense of the confinement of slave boats and prisons. The painting's claustrophobic space is realized in many-times-overlaid, black-and-white cross-hatchings that are positioned in slightly askew blocks. The size of each of these blocks is defined by the reach of the artist's arm. From a distance this pronounced facture coalesces into what could be a disjointed schema for the deep and contradictory perspective found in one of Piranesi's Imaginary Prisons. In Thomasos's work, space is not so much created as destabilized, flipping inwards and outwards as the eye negotiates conflicting patterns of receding planes.

Recollect (1993) was included in “Practice Ground” (curated by Germaine Koh and Daniel Sharp) at the Ottawa Art Gallery. The painting is intuitively divided into a loose grid defined by repetitive, ten-inch-long brushstrokes. These layered marks echo the grid's horizontal and vertical axes to suggest a simple woven pattern and limited spatial recession. The actual canvas support is evident beneath the thin paint, further complicating the woven motif. The dry palette of muted taupes and greys and the bricolaged rhythmic composition suggests West African raffia Kuba cloth. A recognition of this source inflects the painting, pointing to the value as well as the fragility of transported culture. Raffia becomes brittle with age and wear.

Rally (1994) is characteristic of the paintings in Thomasos's solo exhibition at the Olga Korper Gallery. It employs an embarrassment of often-garish colour arranged in teetering columns of horizontal brushstrokes. Mucky violets and umbers are glazed over perfumed lilacs, hot pinks and oranges to create innumerable chroma. This complex pattern of colour constructs shifting illusionistic depth through juxtaposed colour temperature. The brushstrokes jostle and abut, competing for space across the surface of the painting. Again, the multiplicity of individual gestures suggests the impossibility of accounting for the entire surface of the canvas.

Thomasos's foregrounding of labour and abrasive colour undermines the politeness of much of the post-painterly abstractionist paintings her work cites. Like the early modernists Thomasos has borrowed quite unapologetically. But unlike modernism's typically skewed reading of its non-European sources, Thomasos levers a carefully measured hybrid of African and European technologies and references onto current abstraction.

C Magazine 45, Spring 1995