Painter of Palpable Frisson: Denyse Thomasos, 1964-2012
Denyse Thomasos, a painter whose works are at once conceptual and abstract, intimate and monumental, died suddenly on Thursday, July 19th. The cause was an unexpected allergic reaction during a medical procedure. She was 47
Born in Trinidad, her family moved to Canada when she was 6 years old. She developed an interest in art early on, and in 1987 she graduated from the University of Toronto with a BA in painting and art history. She then attended Yale, where she received an MFA in painting and sculpture in 1989. Upon graduating, she immediately moved to New York and began teaching at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. In 1995 she became an Assistant Professor in Painting at Rutgers.
Thomasos’s bold, sometimes monochromatic, gridded abstractions have a visceral kick that immediately draws the viewer in. Layered fat strokes of acrylic paint hover in a constant state of flux, sketching out the frameworks of architectural structures that exist on the edge, caught precariously between full formation and total collapse. Though successful on a purely abstract level, Thomasos spoke of more earthbound, often darker themes when asked to discuss her work. A frequent world traveler, she spent a great deal of time studying prisons and slums, looking at ways disenfranchised people are constrained, both physically and socially. Coming from a privileged background herself, she struggled intellectually and emotionally to understand how culture can warp self-perception and, ultimately, destiny. Taken in this light, the super-enlarged crosshatches cascading across her canvases are not a loose representation of actual places, but an attempt, repeated consistently over many years, to create a multi-dimensional map for understanding the world as we live in it. The intensity and passion Thomasos brought to this project, as much as the subject itself, are inextricably woven into the palpable frisson her paintings elicit.
Thomasos exhibited regularly and had over 15 solo-exhibitions. Olga Korper began representing her in Toronto from 1994, and Lennon Weinberg in New York from 1996, and both continue to do so. She received numerous prestigious awards and grants, including multiple grants from the Canada Council, a regional NEA grant, two Pew Fellowships, grants and residencies from the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Ucross, NYFA, the Guggenheim, Marie Walsh Sharpe, the Bellagio Foundation, P.S. 122, Mac Dowell, and Yaddo. Her work is in the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, along with many other major corporate collections. Reviews of her shows appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Artnews, Artforum, Art in America, and the Village Voice among many others.
Interviewed for Rutgers Observer TV in February 2011, Thomasos said, “I have had the most magical life I could imagine…every dream I’ve ever dreamed has come true…to travel around the world. Being an artist you have the opportunity to live a creative life every minute of the day…it feels like I’m an explorer…and I get to translate everything that I’ve seen, show it in a gallery, and get feedback from audiences. I love every aspect of it…”
Thomasos is survived by her husband, documentary filmmaker Samien Priester, and her daughter, Syann.