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Denzil Forrester

Born, 1956 in Grenada

Born in Grenada in 1956, Denzil Forrester gained an MA in Fine Art (Painting) from the Royal College of Art in the early 1980s. For  two decades or more, he worked out of a studio in Islington Arts Factory, Holloway, north London, from where he produced some of the most arresting and distinctive painting by an artist of his generation.

Historically, Forrester has taken as his subject the twin themes of reggae/dub dance hall and the music, sights, sounds, and movement of carnival. At times, his work has touched on other themes, such as deaths in police custody. His canvasses - often large, oversize affairs - range from dark, brooding and sometimes menacing works, through to bright, liberated paintings resonating with bright and vibrant colours. Sometimes, the scenes he depicts are located in low light, almost tomb-like or nocturnal environments. On other occasions, much like carnival itself, Forrester takes the focus of his attention to the streets, allowing the sun and copious amounts of light, into his paintings. In the words of art critic John Russell Taylor “The something that Forrester’s paintings are about is distinctive and unmistakable. From the time when he first encountered the clubs, their dancing and their dub music, they have provided the basic scene for his large paintings.”

Several decades of consistent activity have made Denzil Forrester a unique and intriguing artist, whose work has featured in a number of exhibitions, both solo and group. In this regard, one of his most significant exhibitions was Dub Transition: A Decade of Paintings 1980, 1990, which was originated by Harris Museum and Art Gallery, touring to venues in Newcastle and Lincoln. Forrester benefited from a Rome Scholarship and a Harkness Scholarship, which took him to New York for a period of time. These scholarships gave Forrester opportunities to develop his practice, though he maintained his interest in, and attachment to, the themes mentioned earlier. Publicity material relating to one of his exhibitions stated that “Denzil has evolved a style which combines the expansive vivacity and glowing colour of his Caribbean roots with a highly effective translation of traditional and modernist European painting. The staccato fragmentation of forms, and dynamic jagged planes which articulate compositions like Carnival Dub and Night Strobe suggest the influence of Italian Futurism, and of German Expressionist painters such as Beckmann.”

Perhaps one of the most important features of Forrester’s work 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, counter-cultural 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. Similarly, Forrester’s paintings have captured the tension and the menace of the intrusive and unwelcome policing that was often a feature of how society viewed Black cultural expressions, particularly those influenced by Rastafari and the attendant ‘dread’ lifestyle and habits. In his painting Police in Blues Club, Forrester depicts a club scene, complete with prancing revellers and carousing youth. The painting’s unsettling elements take the form of two motionless police officers, silently and with no apology conducting surveillance; the embodiment of menace.

John Lyons has offered the view that “Denzil’s respect for tradition is a manifestation of the will to find an identity within two cultures, Afro-Caribbean and European, for both have played a vital role in his process of maturing as an artist.” This impulse of Forrester’s towards synthesis may have contributed to his selection for the significant exhibition of 1986, From Two Worlds. (Whitechapel Art Gallery, 30 July - 7 September 1986.) John Lyons was responsible for a particularly useful text, Denzil Forrester’s Art in Context, which appeared in the catalogue, Denzil Forrester, Dub Transition: A Decade of Paintings 1980 - 1990, Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston, 22 September - 3 November 1990, pages 16 - 21. The exhibition also toured to venues in Newcastle and Lincoln, in 1991.

In 2018, Forrester had a major exhibition of his work at the Jackson Foundation in St Just, Cornwall. Titled Denzil Forrester: From Trench Town to Porthtowan, the eponymous painting to which the exhibition gave its name was referenced by Forrester in an invaluable piece in the Guardian online, about the artist’s exhibition at the Jackson Foundation [https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/may/12/denzil-forrester-retrospective-interview]. The journalist responsible for the feature, Joshua Surtees, asked,  ”The show’s title piece shows a Rastafarian being handcuffed on a beach. What’s it about?”, Forrester answered, “I started painting Porthtowan beach [in Cornwall] and I said: “I’m going to draw black people on the beach.” But it was too calm, it needed a punch, so I used one of my older paintings Three Wicked Men, which Peter Doig bought for the Tate, to give it a kick up the arse. It was like superimposing something from London on to a beach in Cornwall. I painted Three Wicked Men in 1982 – the title was a reggae record at the time about a businessman, a policeman and a politician.”

On 3 December 2018 it was announced in a press release that “Denzil Forrester joins Stephen Friedman Gallery” 

Forrester’s web site is www.denzilforrester.co.uk

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Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1996

click to show details of Law and order on new show’s agenda

»  Law and order on new show’s agenda

Review relating to an exhibition, 1994

click to show details of Transforming the Crown

»  Transforming the Crown

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1997

click to show details of Us an’ Dem (Us and Them) - press release

»  Us an’ Dem (Us and Them) - press release

Press release relating to an exhibition, 1994

click to show details of Us an’ Dem boxed catalogue

»  Us an’ Dem boxed catalogue

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1994

Related exhibitions + view all 10

»  Imagined Communities

Group show at Oldham Art Gallery. 1996

»  Us an’ Dem

Group show at The Storey Institute. 1994

Related venues - view 5

»  4 Victoria Street

Bristol, United Kingdom

»  The Bronx Museum of the Arts

United States of America

»  Caribbean Cultural Center

United States of America

»  Commonwealth Institute

London, United Kingdom

»  Fruitmarket Gallery

Edinburgh, United Kingdom

»  Guildhall Art Gallery

London, United Kingdom

»  Harris Museum & Art Gallery

Preston, United Kingdom

»  Jackson Foundation

St Just Cornwall, United Kingdom

»  Lanchester Gallery, Coventry University

Coventry, United Kingdom

»  Oldham Art Gallery

Oldham, United Kingdom

»  The Storey Institute

Lancaster, United Kingdom

»  Studio Museum in Harlem

New York, United States of America

»  Whitechapel Art Gallery

London, United Kingdom