In 2015, Peter Doig's London gallery TRAMPS held an exhibition showcasing the work of Denzil Forrester (b.1956). The result of this show was an explosion of renewed interest in the artist, resulting in a number of exhibitions around the world which helped re-establish Forrester as an important contributor to the landscape of British modern art. Indeed, in the 2021 New Year's Honours, Forrester, who lives in Cornwall, was made an MBE.
Born in 1956 on the small Caribbean island of Grenada, Forrester moved to the UK in 1967. His interest in art piqued as a child, but it fully blossomed as a teenager. Encouraged by the Colvestone Youth Centre in Dalston, where the father of his partner, the artist Phillippa Clayden worked, he began to build a portfolio. He first attended the Central School of Art, where he completed a foundation year before gaining his BA. He then became one of only a handful of Black artists to earn an MA in Fine Art from the Royal College of Art in 1983.
It was during the third year of his BA that Forrester began to develop the nightclub scenes he would become known for, inspired by the dub nights held in clubs and converted cinemas in East and West London. Legendary DJ Jah Shaka would become a recurring figure in his work.
Forrester's passion for music influenced not just the content of his work, but the process of creation too. 'I'd try and draw to the length of a record,' he told The Guardian in 2019. Sketching in the dark, unable to see clearly, it was only later that Forrester would realise he had been making 'gestural paintings', a term used to describe the application of paint in free sweeping gestures with a brush. Moving away from realistic representation and drawn instead towards abstraction, he used 'the energy of the crowd, the movement, the action, the expression' to create as many as 40 sketches in one night. He would then take the sketches back to his studio, survey them the next day and effectively collage a few to create a painting.
Speaking to Frieze in 2019 about his arts education Forrester said, 'We used to travel at least two or three times a year, mainly to Paris and Amsterdam. In the 1970s, when I was doing my BA at the Central School of Art, I went to Paris and came across Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne for the first time.' He was also looking at the work of Henri Matisse and the American Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. You can see this influence in early works like Dub Skank (1979), in the colour palette used, and in Forrester's presentation of the shapes the body creates when in the throes of dance. These are an expression of his preoccupation with dynamism and conveying emotional intensity.
At the RCA, tutors such as the artists Jennifer Durrant and John Hoyland further encouraged his abstract approach. There he was able to shake off some of the art school formality he had picked up at Central and create some of the works that would earn him a champion in Peter Doig, who attended Forrester's graduation show in 1983.
After he won the prestigious Rome Scholarship in that same year, he spent two years living in Italy which injected a new vibrancy into his work. 'Going to Italy was a big change because suddenly the light was amazing.' Forrester began using brighter colours in his work. The first painting he created in Rome would later be called Carnival Dub, a large diptych featuring four music speakers in each corner. It was a painting in which he incorporated the sensibilities of both dub and carnival, bringing the radiance of carnival in a public space into the close and sweaty strobe-lit intimacy of the club.
The alchemising of a number of influences – Abstract Expressionism, Cubism and Forrester's preoccupation with the magic of light – can also be seen in later works like Dub Scratchers (1990). Here he portrays the club as a place bursting with almost transcendent light, seemingly commenting on the power of music to transport. Rays of light beam outwards from the focal point of the painting, appearing to shatter it. While being inspired by dub and reggae, Forrester's nightclub paintings also feel reminiscent of the jazz paintings of Harlem Renaissance artists with their use of vivid bright colours and their attempt to portray the mood of sound itself on canvas.
During Forrester's time at the RCA, the fraught relationship between Black communities and the police in London also informed his work. His own close friend Winston Rose died in unexplained circumstances while in police custody in 1981.
Forrester painted Funeral of Winston Rose in 1981, which depicts a club scene with the casket and body of his friend at the centre. The sudden and shocking death of Winston Rose, and the lack of justice in the aftermath, also inspired Three Wicked Men (1982), probably his best-known work and now owned by Tate.
#DenzilForrester's 'Three Wicked Men' captures the dynamic energy of the London reggae and nightclub scene of the early 1980s where Forrester sketched people as they danced. (1/2) pic.twitter.com/TbKPjY3XSx— Tate Liverpool (@tateliverpool) July 13, 2020
Named after a Reggae George record and borrowing from a drawing his brother Richie had created as a teenager, the painting depicts a policeman, a uniformed politician and a 'Rasta', here meant to signify Winston Rose.
Forrester continued to create work exploring the lives of the Caribbean community in the UK while teaching at Morley College, but his work gained little critical attention until recent renewed interest and acclaim. In 2018, Art on the Underground commissioned Forrester's first public work. The large mural, which hung on the wall above the stairs at Brixton underground station until September 2020, is called Brixton Blue (2018) and is a reinterpretation of Three Wicked Men, updated for the twenty-first century.
This time, in the bottom left corner, a young man videos or photographs the scene on his phone. With Brixton seen by some as the historical epicentre of Black cultural contributions to London and a classic example of rapid gentrification, hanging Brixton Blue in the tube station is significant. It is an artwork that speaks once again to the experiences, both joyous and painful, of Black people in Britain, with the recurring image of the truncheon-wielding police officer, suited and booted politician and Rastafarian offering a reminder of the injustices that persist.
You can watch the Art on the Underground interview with the artist to find out more about the public commission at Brixton station.
Aida Amoako, freelance writer