Denyse Thomasos was a semi-abstract painter from the Caribbean and Canada whose work comes from a political place. Her linear paintings of interwoven lines resembled the jumble of cities, housing blocks, prisons, abstract passages, coffins, and slave ships. Her figurations seem to float on water or hover in the air. “I used lines in deep space to recreate these claustrophobic conditions, leaving no room to breathe.” She worked with handprinted gestural forms and digital imagery.
Thomasos was born in Trinidad and moved with her family to Toronto in 1970. She described her father as “a brilliant physicist and mathematician whom I saw suffer under racism in Canada. I thought of my father to be a compelling character, a typical immigrant story of hard work and ultimately, the sacrifice of one’s own life for his family’s well-being and potential.”
She received a B.A. in art and art history from the University of Toronto in 1987 and moved to the United States. Three months before she entered graduate school at the Yale University School of Art, her father died. She received her M.F.A. in painting and sculpture from Yale in 1989.
Thomasos lived in Philadelphia from 1990 to 1995 and taught at the Tyler School of Art at the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic. During this time she researched the increase of jailed people of color and did research on the Eastern State Penitentiary, which was the model for solitary confinement from 1829 to 1971. This was the source for her painting “Jail.” She lived in New York’s East Village with her husband and daughter. At the time of her death, she was a professor at Rutgers University.
Her 1993 “Jail” was a monumental work of densely overlapping, powerful black and white lines intersecting one another. Her use of crosshatching here and in other works was a way for her to record time, and its concentrated application resulted in spatial distortion which could have a jarring effect on a viewer.
“Jail” is one in a triptych of paintings along with “Displaced Burial/Burial at Goree,” the first of her large-scale works, and “Dos Amigos (Slave Boat).” All three works reveal Thomasos’ social, political, and historical research and her specific interest in the Middle Passage of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. “I created three large-scale black-and-white paintings of the structures that were used to contain slaves – and left such catastrophic effects on the Black psyche: the slave ship, the prison, and the burial site. These became archetypal for me. I began to reconstruct and recycle their forms in all my works.” Her constructions were based on her visual research gathered during her travels to Asia, Mali, and Peru.
In the year 2000, Thomasos began painting on walls. These huge wall works were a way to expand her studio paintings into gigantic murals of architectonic structures. These paintings were a mixture of floor plans, architectural renderings, and illusionistic spaces that allowed her to paint huge amounts of square footage.
Thomasos won many awards including the Pew Fellowship in the Arts, a Guggenheim fellowship, and Joan Mitchell Award. She won residencies to Bellagio and Yaddo and a fellowship from the New York Foundation of the Arts. Her work was shown in the Whitney Biennial. Until 2017, the Queens Museum had a satellite gallery at Bulova and organized a show of her work there.