Denzil Forrester: Some Considerations (2019)

... We might therefore conclude that perhaps one of the most important features of Forrester’s work from the 1980s is the way in which, inadvertently perhaps, it has created a series of historical documents related to the making of Black Britain. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw the burgeoning of the British sound system: mobile, countercultural reggae enterprises characterised by dub music, MCs, DJs, and fiercely partisan followings of young Black people, primarily males. The clubs and other venues in which sound systems operated are graphically depicted in Forrester’s paintings, and it was these spaces he haunted as an artist, seeking to capture the sights, sounds, personalities and carryings on of revellers and night owls. Some of that which Forrester observed was perhaps what we might expect – exuberant dancing, rhythmic movement – but in his sketches the artist also captured people playing dominoes, , and in some instances, improbably perhaps, catching a nap. The fascinating bringing together of these and other elements is what gives a number of Forrester’s paintings an almost otherworldly sensibility, resulting from the almost surreal interactions that human beings are capable of, in particular spaces and times.

Similarly, Forrester’s paintings have captured, or pointed at, the tension and the menace of the intrusive and unwelcome policing of the blues club environment that was often an embodiment of how society viewed Black cultural expressions, particularly those influenced by Rastafarian and the attendant ‘dread’ lifestyle and practices. In his iconic painting Police in Blues Club (1985), Forrester depicts a club scene, complete with prancing revellers and carousing youth. The painting’s unsettling elements are discernible in the background of the painting, and take the form of two motionless police officers, silently and without apology conducting surveillance: the embodiment of menace, they seek to demonstrate a certain territorial control of a space which might otherwise be perceived as being off-limits to them. Those congregating in the social space are, or so it seems, however, somewhat indifferent to the police officers who have, momentarily at least, occupied the space.

Upon graduating from the Royal College, Forrester benefited from a two-year Rome Scholarship, and then, from 1986 to 1988, a Harkness Fellowship, which took him to New York. These prestigious awards gave Forrester opportunities to develop his practice in environments rich with art history and an abundance of cultural signifiers that contrasted with those of Forrester’s London, though he maintained his interest in, and attachment to, the themes that had become a settled dimension of his painting. It would be a grave error though to read Forrester’s paintings – chronicling the tragedy of Winston Rose, or depicting the nocturnal carryings on of youthful reggae enthusiasts – as in any way literal, verbatim, or documentary. They are none of those things. But what they most assuredly are, are fascinating artistic investigations that utilise a broad range of visual and cultural elements, including those emanating from his own lifestyle of earlier times...

The above extracts are from an essay by Eddie Chambers, for Denzil Forrester: A Survey, published on the occasion of the artist's exhibition at Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, 25 April - 25 May 2019

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