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Project Manager for Exhibitions Melissa Ramage reacts to the hanging of Denyse Thomasos’ Arc (2009) at the AGO in Toronto, on Oct. 5.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Buried somewhere inside an interior wall at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, there’s a mural painted by the Trinidadian-Canadian artist Denyse Thomasos. It was created in 2005, seven years before Thomasos’s untimely death in 2012, when the AGO, in the midst of major renovations, commissioned several artists to cover temporary walls.

Now the gallery is unearthing Thomasos’s work – albeit not literally. The mural remains hidden, but an oversized photograph of Thomasos working on the project introduces visitors to a major retrospective of her semi-abstract architectural paintings.

Born in Trinidad, Thomasos grew up in Toronto before moving to the United States for graduate school, eventually establishing herself in New York. Her career was on the rise when she died suddenly, at only 47, because of an allergic reaction to a medical procedure. If her work has been neglected since then or perhaps, to put it more neutrally, her artistic ascendancy cut short, the AGO retrospective is setting things right. It includes everything from an early self-portrait painted in 1984-85 when Thomasos was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto Mississauga to the giant canvases of the 2000s created in her New York studio.

One recent acquisition, a 2009 painting the AGO purchased for the occasion, measures more than three metres high and six metres wide. Arc is typical of Thomasos’s mature work, its central jumble of curving armature suggesting both shelter and confinement. Its colours are both cheerful and foreboding while the density of its forms and discrepancies in scale insist that the viewer spend time deciphering the space it creates.

Gallery members attend a preview of Just Beyond.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Thomasos’s art was a demanding one, stern sometimes, and could feel merely repetitive if a handful of works were viewed casually. Her achievement is one that emerges from context, which this thorough exhibition provides. (It was put together by AGO curator Renée van der Avoird, Sally Frater, who is the curator of contemporary art at the Art Gallery of Guelph, and Michelle Jacques, a long-time friend of the artist’s and chief curator at the Remai Modern in Saskatoon, which co-organized the show and where it will tour next.)

After her start with figurative painting in her student years – she was good enough that she got work sketching street portraits at Canada’s Wonderland – the artist’s abstraction took root soon after she completed graduate school at Yale. In this exhibition, there are several key paintings from the 1990s that reveal the way she repeated the basic structure of a built form, such as a scaffolding or a boat, to the point of abstraction: Rally of 1994 is a wonderful example in which a large canvas is covered in much repeated hatch patterns in different colours. But architecture has social content: Dos Amigos, a much tougher painting of 1993, hangs nearby; its all-black patterns represent the armature of a slave ship.

Thomasos’s art proves to be an idiosyncratic one built on surprises and contradictions. First, monumental abstract painting is a medium traditionally associated with men, and Thomasos, a Black woman and committed painter from the age of 15, blew past those limits. While she was an abstractionist, she was not a formalist: As that slave ship suggests, her work is filled with explicit content. She was a gestural painter, making her mark with drips and swoops, yet architectural line gives her work its rigour.

And beyond these observations about her style, there are her themes. Is that a boat sailing free, or a coffin? Is that a cage or a cottage? After 9/11 shook New York’s cultural scene, Thomasos began to travel widely, researching both the multiracial roots of Caribbean society from West Africa to South and East Asia and architectural forms from shanties to skyscrapers. She took a particular interest in the megaprisons erected in the United States, the physical site for mass Black incarceration as “three strikes” laws for sentencing repeat offenders spread during the 1990s.

One image in several paintings, including that hidden mural, is the panopticon, the 19th-century circular prison that would allow one central guard to secretly oversee multiple cells. And yet, in a Canadian context, the mural’s title, Hybrid Nation, could refer to a very positive human gathering, while Thomasos often deployed the circular panopticon to provide torque, drawing her composition together and pulling the viewer in.

She came of age artistically in a period when figurative painting was revived, and yet her social concerns bear little resemblance to the ego-driven neo-expressionism of the 1980s, while today her work reaffirms the importance of pure painting in an era where much political work is resolutely multimedia.

In short, Thomasos’s art breaks many a mould and, for all their mighty scale, her paintings are subtle compositions that demand the kind of long look this retrospective affords.

Gallery Technician Andre Ethier works on the installation of Arc.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Denyse Thomasos: just beyond continues at the Art Gallery of Ontario until Feb. 20. It will show at the Remai Modern in Saskatoon in spring, 2023, and at the Vancouver Art Gallery in fall, 2023.

Editor’s note: An outdated job title for Sally Frater, curator of contemporary art at the Art Gallery of Guelph, appeared in a previous version of this story. This version has been corrected.