Artist Denzil Forrester melds the energy of '80s dub with themes of social justice
A new show by Grenada-born British artist Denzil Forrester showcases an intoxicating series of paintings that merge past and present in a frenzy of energy.
For many people living in Britain's inner cities, the early 1980s were a time of mass unemployment, protest and riots. But there was also joy, and one example was the rise of dub: a genre of music that melded traditional reggae with electronic sounds.
Denzil Forrester MBE – who was born in Grenada in 1956 and moved to London in 1967 – was right at the heart of the UK dub scene. His drawing practice began on dub nights when he first took out his sketchbook in the nightclubs that he frequented and drew at the bar – mostly in semi-darkness – with hurried, expressive marks of pastel and charcoal.
Each sketch would be dictated by the length of the record, roughly four minutes long, with each subsequent drawing beginning and ending in sync with the changing soundtrack.
Now a new exhibition of his work at the Stephen Friedman Gallery in London powerfully evokes the excitement, energy and atmosphere of those times. The show includes new paintings and a separate survey of works on paper from the past 40 years.
The artist's drawings demonstrate the breadth of his subjects, including Italian architecture from his time in Rome; gestural sketches of crocodiles at London Zoo made while he was a student at the Royal College of Art; and studies of form, colour, and composition. It is these drawings that first came to inspire Forrester's paintings in the '80s and continue today to inform his practice.
In his latest work, the artist takes a similar approach to the creation of dub music itself, remixing colourful depictions of urban dancehalls with vivid recollections from his childhood and themes of social injustice.
One of the largest paintings is rendered in a more abstract style and exudes frenetic energy. 'Surge' (2022) began in the dub dancehalls of Kingston, Jamaica, where the artist spent a residency in 2019, sketching in situ at the city's clubs.
Back in his Cornwall studio, Forrester transposed his frenetic drawings of the revellers into painterly compositions, using graphic, staccato brushstrokes to emulate the pulse of the music. Bathed in a wash of blue, the painting is imbued with a hallucinatory atmosphere which, in Forrester's words, reflects the power of the DJ as a "witch doctor" unifying the crowd. The figures' movements are broken up like shards of light bouncing off a disco ball, revealing the influence of German Expressionism and Cubism on the artist's practice.
Other works in the show contribute further to the artist's rich documentation of London's West Indian community during the 1980s, explored through the lens of his own childhood and adolescence.
'Eula and Sons' (2022), for example, is an autobiographical diorama depicting Forrester's family sewing bags to earn money when they first moved to Hackney in London over 40 years ago. The artist distorts the composition by toying with perspective, resulting in a sweeping movement that draws the viewer through the scene.
A speaker in the top left corner references the impact music has had on Forrester's life since his early youth. Scottish painter Peter Doig notes that such "dreamlike" works "emerge as much from [the artist's] imagination as from his studies of real life" and possess "a subtlety and form that has perhaps come about because he is reflecting upon his past".
Forrester's work also features modern-day examples of racial injustice. 'Q' (2022) directly references a racist incident in the UK involving a fifteen-year-old black schoolgirl who was subjected to a strip search by police in 2020.
Forrester paints 'Child Q' with a sense of reverence, prominently positioning her in the centre of an empty nightclub. The figure's hands are placed delicately on top of the other, and her clothes lie scattered on the floor. The foreboding presence of three policemen suggests a poignant parallel with one of Forrester's most well-known works, 'Three Wicked Men' (1982) – now in the collection of Tate, UK – which was prompted by the death of his friend Winston Rose whilst in police custody.
Denzil Forrester: With Q is on show at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, 25-28 Old Burlington St, London W1S 3AN (a two-minute walk from the Royal Academy of Arts) from now until 8 April. The exhibition coincides with the artist's two major US solo shows in 2023 at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, in January and ICA Miami in April.