Denyse Thomasos at the AGO

Metropolis (2007) by Denyse Thomasos
“Metropolis”, 2007, by Denyse Thomasos. Collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

This week I had a day off and decided to go to the Art Gallery of Ontario, with no particular agenda. And I was absolutely blown away by the exhibit Denyse Thomasos: Just Beyond.

I’d never heard of Thomasos (1964–2012) before, or seen any of her work. That added to the thrill of wandering aimlessly up to the fifth-floor gallery and encountering this art for the first time, without any preconceived ideas.

What I like most about these paintings is the way they skate the line between abstract and figurative, organic and manufactured. Big, drippy expressionist strokes, interlaid with regimented, architectural geometries.

Bone structures, shipping containers, urban infrastructure, prison cells — you get these snatches of recognition without ever quite fixing your eye on a recognizable object. Dense layering means there’s always something pulling your gaze elsewhere on the canvas. They're easy to get lost in.

Left: Dos Amigos (Slave Boat), 1993; Right: Virtual Incarceration (1999); both by Denyse Thomasos
Two paintings by Denyse Thomasos. Left: “Dos Amigos (Slave Boat)”, 1993, Collection of Cadillac Fairview; Right: “Virtual Incarceration”, 1999, Estate of Denyse Thomasos and Olga Korper Gallery.

The political content here is pointed, without ever being didactic. One painting, Virtual Incarceration (11 feet tall by 20 feet wide) is monumentally large, but still manages to produce a cramped and crowded visual effect, with warped and unsettled perspective planes. I find it rare for abstract painting to achieve this kind of synthesis, where the visual and conceptual content complement one another so clearly.

Anyway, I really liked this show! It’s delightful to stumble over something you’ve never seen before and feel so instantly at home with it. Just Beyond is at the AGO through February 2023.