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The Art of Confinement

The oversized paintings of Rutgers–Newark arts professor Denyse Thomasos contemplate the toll of imprisonment.

Denyse Thomasos
Denyse Thomasos’s art communicates a human reality through architectural fantasy as she “builds” prisons by applying acrylic to canvas, employing images of “man-made structures to represent man-made destruction,” says Thomasos, an associate professor of fine arts at Rutgers–Newark. Right, “Cliff Dwellers,” 2007 (detail).  Photography by Benoit Cortet

Denyse Thomasos’s paintings are purposefully seductive. The alluring colors, soft curves, and sheer size—up to 11 by 20 feet—are meant to draw you in. Once the politics at the heart of them becomes apparent, her work resonates ever more deeply.

Thomasos, an associate professor of fine arts who teaches painting, drawing, and printmaking at Rutgers–Newark, has spent years thinking about the social injustice of the prison system, and the disturbing rate at which blacks are incarcer­ated, as a contemporary manifestation of slavery. Thomasos has seen and studied a super-maximum-security prison in Maryland, benignly set in a pastoral landscape but reliant on sophisticated technology and impenetrable walls so that few know what goes on within. Her art communicates this human reality through architectural fantasy as she “builds” prisons by applying acrylic to canvas, employing images of “man-made structures to represent man-made destruction,” she says.

Born in Trinidad, raised in Toronto, with East Indian, African, Chinese, and Spanish heritage, Thomasos has a transnational sensibility. Her work reflects years of travel to Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America. She has been gathering, as photographs and impressions in her mind, her “visual research”: homes made of mud in China and India, wooden ships in India, birdcages in Bali, the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam, conical details of the Dogon architecture in Mali.

In her New York studio, she lets it all go. “I just start intuitively filling in the space,” she says. Then, structures appear: a cage, a catwalk, a courtyard, a slave boat, even a coffin. No, wings—perhaps to suggest an imprisoned mind taking flight? As Thomasos notices these developments, she draws them out, stepping back while she paints to see what emerges. A painting can take one or two years to complete, and it is only finished, she says, when it “becomes a living, breathing thing with a spirit of its own.”

And getting there takes courage. “You have to be able to destroy something to pull something else out,” she says. “You have to be willing to lose the painting because of something even greater that you see.”

— Lara De Meo RC’97