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Denyse Thomasos broke out of her own mould

The prison, the slave ship, the slum, the freighter – these are the forms that haunt the canvases of the late Denyse Thomasos. Unquestionably, structure gives comfort and shape to our human interactions; it is a necessary antidote to chaos. But structure can also incarcerate us. Thomasos explored this conundrum in her art.

The Trinidad-born, Canadian-raised artist spent the bulk of her professional life in New York and teaching painting at Rutgers University until her untimely death in July at the age of 47. She made her reputation with her tightly gridded explorations of colour, pattern and space, works built from dense thatchworks of lines that suggested both architectural renderings and African weaving.

Often, though, these paintings conjured agitation or confinement. At the Art Gallery of Ontario, her large 2005 wall mural Hybrid Nations arose from her research into American superjails, where disproportionately large numbers of African-Americans are incarcerated. Metropolis, which she made two years later, described a cluster of gridded structures overarched by enormous inverted buttresses, gripping like giant claws. But these buttresses also suggested a rib cage torquing upward, and the enclave of the human body. This was a dystopic vision, charged with energy, and very much open for the business of interpretation.

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In Thomasos' more recent work, on show currently at Olga Korper Gallery in Toronto, the sense of spatial congestion seems to ease. Sometimes sprawling in scale, the paintings suggest structure teased open, with the forms spilling forward into space. Like her earlier paintings, they're cooked up from her distinctive blend of ingredients: her family's diasporic history (the trauma of departure and arrival), the history of painting (her husband, Samein Priester, spoke to me this week about her interest in Robert Motherwell and Richard Diebenkorn, as well as the contemorary work of Julie Mehretu), her travels (Mali, Thailand, Cambodia, India) and her voracious investigations into current global affairs.

"It wasn't okay for her not to know what was going on in the world," Priester recalls, remembering how she would assign him the odd research project. "Like Cuba, for example. She would say: 'I can't find out about everything. You have to help.' "

I asked him to tell me about a central section of the monumental, six-metre-long canvas in her current show, and the iconography of what look to be shipping containers. These objects are signifiers of global trade, to be sure, but they are also used in the illegal trafficking of human beings. Slavery is making a comeback these days. Was this the sort of thing she used to discuss with him? "Yes, absolutely," says Priester. "She wanted to talk about that issue more."

Her final show also bears testimony to her own struggle for artistic freedom. "She had gotten to be very structured," Priester says. "She wanted to go back to a sense of open possibility, to take that risk not to do what everybody expected of her, not to make those signature strokes. There is great pressure to keep doing the things that people know you for."

Cross-hatching and compression gave way to looping lines, open fields of colour and advancing and receding planes of space. Thomasos had found a new gesture of release, a new lushness – even in the smaller pieces, like her 20- by 20-centimetre study of a recessive space that looks uncannily like an open coffin. With her death so imminent at the time of its making, this work now seems like painterly premonition. Layers of grey, pale green, cream and flesh pink define an opening etched in black, achieving the effect of depth with eloquent economy. It's another kind of vessel, this time for a crossing we cannot know, a tantalizing terminus on the artist's journey.

Denyse Thomasos: Memorial Celebration continues at Olga Korper Gallery in Toronto until Nov. 28.

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