Denyse Thomasos, above, sits before her piece Arc. Fr. Dan Donovan says what is important about Thomasos’ work is not so much its religious affiliation, but its spiritual instinct. Photo by Nancy Borowick from the Estate of Denyse Thomasos and Olga Korper Gallery

Catholic artist gives audience a complex experience

  • October 13, 2022

Trying to explain the effect of Denyse Thomasos’ immense, complex, abstract paintings, Fr. Dan Donovan reaches for St. Thomas Aquinas.

“It’s Aquinas’s definition of beauty, ‘id quod visum placet’ — that which pleases upon being seen,” he said as he toured through the Art Gallery of Ontario’s major retrospective of the artist’s work. Denyse Thomasos: Just Beyond runs until Feb. 20 at the AGO.

Donovan — theologian, teacher and art lover — immediately recognizes that not everyone would think of Thomasos’s work as pleasant. He is not among those.

“It pleases me,” he said.

From her days as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus in the early 1980s to her unexpected death in 2012 at the age of 47 (an allergic reaction to an MRI procedure), Thomasos explored dark subject matter and painted it in dense, dark and bewildering lines, leading the viewer into the canvas while at the same time holding the eye back, forbidding entry. Her paintings were about the legacy of slavery, the slave ships of the Middle Passage, panopticon prison designs, the prison industrial complex, the hell of urban life for the poor, immigrant experience and racism.

“Overall I’m not trying to give the audience a happy experience or a dark experience. I’m trying to give a complex experience. I really get the complexity of humanness,” Thomasos told The National Post in 2010.

Thomasos was no minor, obscure artist in her lifetime. She won a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pew Fellowship and a Millennium Grant from the Canada Council for the Arts among many awards. She was a professor of art at the prestigious Rutgers University in New Jersey. After her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Toronto, she took an MFA from Yale University. She had solo exhibitions at important galleries and contributed to major art shows across Canada, in Europe and the United States. Her work has been collected by the Art Gallery of Ontario, major collectors, public and private.

One of her most important paintings is also part of the Donovan Collection at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. Donovan acquired Babylon in 2005 and it has ever since loomed over lecturers and confronted students in Carr Hall. For the show at the AGO, it sets the tone at the outset of the exhibition.

Donovan has been collecting art since he was a student of such important 20th-century theologians as Fr. Karl Rahner and Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, in Europe. The priest-professor has been endowing St. Michael’s College with his collection since the mid-1990s and it now includes over 450 works accumulated over more than 40 years.

In Donovan’s mind, art simply must be part of a Catholic education. A Catholic mind cannot be contained in the utilitarian, the formulaic or the mundane.

Donovan winces at the suggestion that Thomasos isn’t just a major Canadian artist, but also a major Catholic artist of our time. The priest learned long ago that categorizing art and artists along denominational lines can distort and block any real understanding.

Born in Trinidad, Thomasos grew up in Toronto from the age of six as part of a practising Catholic family. She married filmmaker Samein Priester at St. Basil’s Church in Toronto in 2010. Babylon is not an unusual Biblical reference in Thomasos’ body of work. There’s Dwelling — Tower of Babel, Sacrifice, Arc and several with the title Kingdom Come.

What’s important about Thomasos’ work is not her religious affiliation, but her spiritual instinct, said Donovan.

“There are no figures in it and yet there’s a sense certainly. If you look at them for a long time, there’s a presence,” he said. “These things represent — not just in a kind of intellectual, symbolic way, but somehow they embody, almost like an icon, they embody a presence of some kind.”

Thomasos rooted her work in deep and detailed research. She spent the Bush presidency in the United States learning everything she could about the explosion of privately operated supermax jails, and about the political psychology that drove their construction. Her paintings drew attention to hidden realities, said curator and scholar Dr. Marsha Pearce.

“She tried to bring us to see things we would overlook,” Pearce told The Catholic Register. “Like human suffering.”

As a Black artist who saw her father’s struggle with racism in Toronto, Thomasos was confronted by history. She was involved in the anti-apartheid movement as a student. Among her earliest works are Sacrifice, which depicts the hold of a slave ship.

“She was reckoning with a history,” said Pearce.

We can reckon along with the artist, but we have to let go of our desire for an explanation, said Donovan. A painting isn’t a simple answer to a simple question, he said.

“It can mean different things. It can mean confronting difficult situations. It can mean something with a highly moral quality to it,” said Donovan. “They (artists) are trying to go beyond what’s on the surface. Many don’t have the language for it. They’re not authors. They’re not writers. So they express their ideas better in imagery… The main thing is to look, just look.”

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