Spanning the whole of Denzil Forrester’s career from ‘The Cave’ (1978) painted before the artist went to the Royal College of Art, up to works made in 2019 during a first trip to Jamaica, the movement and dynamism of Afro-Caribbean Dub-Reggae scenes with depictions of club nights, sound systems, house parties and Carnival remain the major subject of the work. As a painter Forrester now occupies a unique position as an enduring documenter of the British Afro-Caribbean experience throughout this period. Born in Grenada, Forrester moved with his mother to London at the age of ten and the paintings reflect the artist’s attempts to recall this childhood idyll while colliding with the realities of life in the UK. This is Forrester’s first solo exhibition in a UK public gallery for thirty years and could hardly be more timely as the latest deportation of Windrush generation migrants re-open the fraught history of Britain’s Afro-Caribbean communities. The paintings evoke what Eddie Chambers and Paul Gilroy have described as the particular fission for artists that resulted from the emergence of a distinct Black British cultural identity in the 1980s, something that in Forrester’s vision refused to be cowed by waves of state pressure.
The interference of the British state into the life of the Black community has been a subject of Forrester’s work since the 1981 death of his friend Winston Rose while in Metropolitan Police custody. The one painting by the artist in the Tate’s collection ‘Three Wicked Men’ (1982) was an immediate response to his death, depicting in the scene a pair of White policemen framing a central Black male figure. Though that work is not shown in Nottingham, the near replica study ‘Brixton Blue’ (2018), commissioned as a mural for Art on the Underground, has been included. The composition recalls both Picasso’s ‘The Three Dancers’ (1925) - another work mourning the violent death of a childhood friend - and ‘Guernica’ (1936) as an impassioned demand for justice. Revisiting Forrester’s explicit warnings about the brutal consequences of state intrusion and the misuse of surveillance is timely and are shown in Nottingham alongside an installation by Sung Tieu, a Millennial-generation artist tackling the same topics.
Placed at the beginning of the exhibition ‘The Cave’ is a mass of angular figures, thickly painted, that recalls the ‘primitive’ dancing figures of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and the German Expressionists. Interviewed for the exhibition Forrester describes the importance of a residency in Rome following his MA at the RCA for realising the importance of a sense of lightness. This breakthrough influenced the painting ‘Night Strobe’ (1985) depicting the blended cool blue hues of a crowd dancing at the All Nations jazz club in London Fields. A key work of the exhibition, in ‘Night Strobe’ Forrester’s figures and compositions became more radiant, closer to the analytically dynamic works of Balla and Boccioni as studies of all over movement created through repeated painterly gestures. Forrester describes his working process, making rapid drawing studies in the club, that, due to the dark interiors can only be seen once he is in the studio. Here he composes the painting with the intention to make visible the secluded community of the club through the work’s exhibition. ‘Night Strobe’ presents a riposte to Margaret Thatcher’s dictum ‘there is no such thing as society’ which summarised the divisive racial politics of the period that to a degree determined the early reception of Forrester’s work. The painting’s silhouetted figures also recall Aaron Douglass’ scenes of the fleeting Harlem Renaissance that provides another reference to appreciate Forrester’s historical importance. Within a few years of the painting of ‘Night Strobe’ the emergence of the British Rave Club scene and tightened legislation against squatting and unlicensed events killed off venues such as the All Nations.
Forrester returns to the vibrant scenario of ‘Night Strobe’ in several paintings made over decades and the exhibition makes this continuity clear. ‘Dub Strobe 1’ (1995) has the same elements of the sound system speaker stacks and the club’s glitter ball with its radiant Cubo-Futurist beams becoming like an interior Sun. The figures in the crowd are less individualised, more part of a rhythmic expression, that, with its blue tones recalls Cezanne’s ‘Bathers’. The impression becomes stronger in ‘Itchin & Scratchin’ (2019), a work made following the trip to Jamaica that depicts similar Arcadian figures. Forrester’s painterly roots in European Modern Art make him something of an awkward fit with other British artists of Caribbean heritage. Instead of foregrounding a deconstruction of the European canon Forrester embraces those parts that appeal to communal experience, more akin to Derek Walcott’s interpretations of Greek myth. In depicting the Dub club scenes in London, Forrester captures how music has helped Caribbean diaspora communities define themselves at a time of exclusion from cultural institutions. In painting a similar scene over 30 years later in Kingston, the artist moves beyond the territoriality of romanticism and in the process the dancehall crowds metamorphose into Walcott’s ‘No nation now but the imagination’.