Finding Home on a Gallery Wall

I recently attended a lecture by Denyse Thomasos, a young and highly regarded painter based in New York City. The lecture reminded me how fine art greatly benefits from context. Too often we see the work of an artist out of context, scattered like puzzle pieces across vast distances. No wonder so many of us find contemporary art mystifying.

Unlike novelists, most artists present their ideas to large audiences in excerpt. There's simply not enough room on a gallery's white walls. Often, gallery-goers remain in the dark regarding an artist's studio practices. They can't decipher a simplified yet precise visual language, honed through so many drawings and paintings, countless and unseen.

In her lecture, Thomasos masterfully explained how she developed her abstract paintings, cage-like grids in earth colors. Painted deftly on monumental canvases, her compositions suggest places of habitation.

While most abstract artists willfully cut tethers from the mundane world, Thomasos seeks to find home again through her art. Born in Trinidad to a family of African and Asian descent, Thomasos told a very moving story about her early childhood in the West Indies, how her father sought only the best for his children. An esteemed high school principal, he wanted his children educated within the British system. He found the right educational model in Canada, and he moved his family to Toronto.

Yet Thomasos's father struggled to find his footing in cold Canadian terrain. Like many immigrants, he sacrificed the privileges of his more settled life in Trinidad for the lasting benefit of his children.

Though abstract, much of Thomasos's art is deeply personal, honoring her father while at the same time attempting to define home in a culture of displacement. Deliberately, she wanders, taking pictures of buildings and homes in China, Vietnam, India and West Africa.

The cage-like forms that suggest buildings also suggest slavery and the middle passage; the roots of Thomasos's art run deeper than one or two generations. She composes entire paintings out of lines, and she suggests that the slash of the line memorializes the labor of the sugar-cane cutter. Studio assistants mix her paint colors, and she asks them to mix the paint into the color of mud and dirt: the raw stuff of home on a canvas, hanging on a white wall.

(Courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art)

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