At his studio in Cornwall, artist Denzil Forrester immortalises the dynamic energy of the 1980s London reggae and dub nightclub scene, juxtaposed with themes of social injustice and vivid recollections from his West Indies childhood.
Words by Martin Holman
"Drawing makes you stronger,” says Denzil Forrester. For this artist, drawing provides the foundation on which he builds his paintings, large canvases in vivid combinations of purple, blue, violet, green, yellow and orange. “When I start a painting,” he points out, “I go back to my sketchbooks; they help me find myself.” Those drawings might be 40 years old, made when this Truro-based artist was based in London; or they come from a trip to Jamaica in 2019; or they date back only a few months or days. For Forrester, they remain current.
His paintings, which this year alone have been seen in solo exhibitions in Kansas City, Miami and London, often feature a low-ceilinged room in which lots of people, typically seen from the back, have gathered around a central figure. Behind the crowd in this claustrophobic space are tall cabinets like leaning towers with circular features punctuating their surfaces. From the heart of the composition surge diagonal lines: they connect background and front, top and sides of the image to make an invigorating visual experience. Everything seems to jump.
Forrester’s artistic dictum is “paint what you know about: don’t make it up, be honest with yourself”. Making his way as a painter in London in the late 1970s, he knew he had to find subject matter that was special to him. After all, visiting Paris and Amsterdam as a student at London’s Central School of Art and Design, he recognised the artists who inspired him in museums by the subjects that identified them. Through their subjects they unlocked new possibilities, particularly in how to use their materials. Monet had his garden and Cézanne was known by the rigorous way he constructed a still life. Picasso revolutionised our perception of the figure when he distorted its form to release time within an image through Cubism.
Armed with a place on the MA course at the Royal College of Art, Forrester discovered what he wanted to paint. It has stayed with him ever since, and even after moving from east London to Cornwall in 2012, the nightclubs and street scene of Hackney, east London, dominate the narratives he imagines on canvas. He knew the area well, having grown up in the richly multicultural borough since arriving in England, aged 11, from his native Grenada in the West Indies. Music had been part of growing up, from the house parties of his youth where lovers’ rock played and long-life beer was drunk, to disco and R&B nights at Colvestone Youth Centre’s art studio, run by the father of Forrester’s partner ever since, Phillippa Clayden. Its creative atmosphere encouraged both to become artists.
Concentrating on painting, dance, photography and music, he was introduced to Phebes, a pioneering club for West Indians in cultural exile that attracted black youth from around the UK. Occupying an imposing Victorian building on the same road as Forrester’s home, it had previously been a hang-out for London’s celebrity gangsters. Under new ownership, the basement now hosted sound systems operators who played spaced out bass-heavy dub reggae. Prominent among these djs was Jah Shaka whose playlists had spiritual content; their high energy rhythms played through gigantic mono speakers. Shaka’s sets would start at 1am and Forrester would be there at a table near the back or perched behind the bar. From his vantage point he could watch the audience, mostly Rastafarian, absorb the music. And he would draw.
The canvases that Forrester has painted from his club drawings best define his distinctive practice. A central figure frequently stands out from the crowd at centre-stage, almost like a priest or guru conducting a service for an avid congregation. The clubbers would group around Shaka to watch him working the turntable and commanding the soundscape. “The dancing is incredible,” he recalls. “The place would be jam-packed and full of movement; the women wear African dress and the men have excellent head gear. The atmosphere was rough and direct. I would focus on part of the room and would stay for three hours, week after week, working away on sheets of A1-sized paper spread over the table.”
His solitary, busy presence at the back of the room was accepted as part of the setting. “Only when I was in New York, in the mid-80s, was I questioned and told I needed permission.” He lived in that city for two years as recipient of the prestigious Harkness Fellowship. He had hoped that the local hip-hop venues on Fulton Street, Brooklyn, would stimulate him just as London’s reggae beat had done, and reconnect him with his subject matter while in America.
The reception he found, however, was different and paper was not allowed in the clubs. But in a nearby bookshop he discovered a book with lasting value for him and Phillippa. In Kimon Nicolaides’s manual called The Natural Way to Draw he found the ‘bible’, as he calls it, that guided his teaching on his return to London for the next 30 years. Forrester’s affinity with the book’s concept was immediate because, by stressing gesture over description, it Britain. He has his own tales of harassment and treatment with insulting behaviour by officials. In 1981 his childhood friend, Winston Rose, died; the subsequent inquest, which the artist attended, passed a verdict of unlawful killing at the hands of the police. Injustice at this searing level has provoked Forrester’s darkest and most haunting work. In Blue Jay (1987), the enclosed, jubilant spirit of the nightclub scenes is transcribed as blue-tinted panic and anger when the central figure confronts the onward rush of hostile uniformed force.
Policemen turn up in his images as an unsettling, authoritarian presence. Forrester recalls being stopped and searched, of being viewed through a stereotype as a threat: “You would be stopped and then never know what’s going to happen.” He acknowledges that community relations have improved, and when Art on the Underground commissioned the mural Brixton Blue (2019) for the entrance to Brixton’s tube station, he revisited an earlier composition, Three Wicked Men (1982), now in the Tate’s collection. With its title borrowed from a reggae track of the time, that work depicts a Bob Marley lookalike Rastafarian marching in step between two officers swinging truncheons. In the intervening decades, perhaps the mood has lightened, the urgency eased. But that combination of cultural symbols has not lost its impact.
The trio reappear in From Trench Town to Porthtowan (2017) against the incongruous backdrop of a beach and bathers. The central figure has exchanged his ghettoblaster for handcuffs, inserting a note of tension, the legacy of London. For in 2012 Forrester bought a property in Truro and, on his retirement from teaching four years later, settled in Cornwall to complete a happier transition. Although he has known the county for 50 years (Phillippa’s parents owned a house in Mount Hawke and he came west on group drawing trips during his art school studies) and the landscape inspires him, he says he does not need its distinctive light and colour to paint, even though they remind him of the West Indies, he says. Instead, he continues to connect with his past in the clubs by reviewing old drawings that still spark new pictures. Time has not stalled in these images because they exist in a perpetual present and future.
Similarly, his paintings remain large in format and personality. Forrester succeeds in presenting a community’s social rituals on the scale of the great history paintings he studied as a young man in the Louvre in Paris, or the altarpieces he admired in Italian museums during two years he spent in Rome from 1983. His consistency of subject matter is matched by the continued development of his style, its strengthening blend of formal directness and a sophisticated technique.
Awarded the MBE in 2020, his uncommon vision has been applauded by critics and curators for evoking and commemorating the joy, anger and fear that seem true to the Black British experience. At the same time, his work stands out with its commitment to painting, its structures, materials and emotional possibilities. “You have to give yourself over to the feeling; it guides you in the space of the painting. Trust and believe in yourself.”
Denzil Forrester is represented by Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. The exhibition Denzil Forrester: We Culture continues at ICA, Miami, USA, until 24th September 2023.