Denzil Forrester: Lifeline

Amongst those privileged to see his work, painter Denzil Forrester occupies an elevated and lofty position in late 20th/early 21st histories of contemporary painting in Britain. During a period in which many of the country’s practitioners abandoned painting, in the belief that other art forms might perhaps be more suited to reflect on contemporary conditions, Forrester kept faith with painting. In so doing, he enacted a persuasive and defiant rebuttal of those who felt the art form to be in some way lacking, as regards matters of representation, identity, and so on.

Forrester graduated from the Royal College of Art with an MA in Painting, in the early 1980s, thereby and thereafter emerging into the art world as a singular talent, well able to convincingly reflect on manifestations of culture and of society that he observed around him. One of the first thing one notices about Forrester’s painting might be their scale. Historically, the largest paintings in the world’s museums and galleries have been self-aggrandising affairs, in which scale purportedly related to the supposed status of the people or events depicted. Forrester challenged this hierarchical tendency and deliberately chose to frequently render his subjects in grand, almost oversize canvases, thereby attributing a pronounced, elevated status to that and to those, which he depicted. Indeed, on occasion, so large were his paintings that they had to be executed as diptychs, which is to say, as paintings in two parts, which abutted together.

Forrester frequently took as his subjects the cultural expressions of those around him, and in this regard, themes such as carnival and other charged environments in which amplified music is played, such as blues dances, dominated his canvases. Sometimes, he painted brooding, dimly lit scenes, strongly evocative of the subterranean or the nocturnal. On other occasions, his canvases were light, bight affairs, scenes into which light poured in, giving such paintings strong feelings of rhythm, movement and energy.

We must though, always be hesitant to regard Forrester’s wonderful paintings and drawings (the latter often preparatory studies for the former) as in any way being literal depictions. In many of Forrester’s paintings, decidedly surreal elements often serve to complicate and indeed, enhance our appreciation of what we are looking at. The artist has a quite remarkable sense of scale, perspective and vantage point. In a great many instances, the viewer is cast as spectator, or observer, occupying an elevated, almost aerial view of proceedings and activities. This is one of the devices that make Forrester’s paintings so remarkable, so special.

As time goes by, Forrester’s art more and more takes on the appearance of history painting. By this I mean his paintings take on the hugely important aspect of marking moments in history; moments which, were it not for Forrester, would pass unremarked and consequently, be lost to us. Consider for example his paintings of the 1980s and beyond, which reflected on the sorts of social spaces many youngsters and young men created for themselves. Forrester’s paintings frequently remind us of the journeys through a variety of cultural expressions that people take. Forrester’s pai8ntings depicting people are always undertaken with a notable sense of respect and empathy, even in those canvases that are almost dream-like in their narratives. He remains faithful to the medium of painting and in this regard, we have much to thank him for, and much to enjoy, whenever his work is exhibited.

The above text by Eddie Chambers was from the catalogue accompanying Lifeline: Painting and drawing at Morley, Morley College, London, 21May - 16 June 2016, "to celebrate thirty years teaching at Morley College by tutor Denzil Forrester, this exhibition is a record of the achievements by both tutor and students from 1985 to 2016."