For many people living in Britain’s inner cities, the early 1980s were a time of mass unemployment, protests and riots. But there was also joy, and one example was the rise of dub: a genre of music that combined 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 dubbing scene. His drawing practice began at dub nights when he first took out his sketchbook in the nightclubs he frequented and drew in the bar – mostly in semi-darkness – with hasty, expressive pastel and charcoal marks.
Each sketch would be dictated by the length of the record, approximately four minutes long, with each subsequent sketch 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 that era. The show includes new paintings and a separate survey of works on paper from the past 40 years.
The artist’s drawings show the range of his subjects, including Italian architecture from his time in Rome. Gesture sketches of crocodiles at London Zoo while a student at the Royal College of Art. and studies of form, color and composition. It is these designs that first inspired Forrester’s paintings in the 1980s and continue to inform his practice today.
In his latest work, the artist takes a similar approach to creating dub music itself, mixing colorful depictions of urban dancers with vivid childhood memories and themes of social injustice.
One of the larger paintings is rendered in a more abstract style and exudes frenzied energy. ‘Surge’ (2022) began in the dub dancehalls of Kingston, Jamaica, where the artist spent a residency in 2019, sketching in situ in the city’s clubs.
Back in his studio in Cornwall, Forrester translated his frantic drawings of revelers into painterly compositions, using graphic, staccato strokes to mimic the pulse of the music. Bathed in an azure blue, the painting is imbued with a hallucinatory atmosphere that, in Forrester’s words, reflects the power of the DJ as a “witch” who brings the crowd together. The movements of the figures break up like bits 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 further contribute 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 the Forrester family sewing bags to earn money when they first moved to Hackney in London more than 40 years ago. The artist distorts the composition by playing with perspective, resulting in a sweeping movement that draws the viewer into the scene.
A speaker in the upper left corner refers to the impact music had on Forrester’s life from his early youth. Scottish painter Peter Doig notes that such ‘dream’ works ‘stem so much from [the artist’s] imagination as from his studies of real life’ and possesses ‘a subtlety and a form which perhaps arose from reflecting on his past’.
Forrester’s work also presents contemporary examples of racial injustice. ‘Q’ (2022) directly refers to a racist incident in the UK involving a fifteen-year-old black schoolgirl, which was investigated by the police in 2020.
Forrester paints “Child Q” with a sense of reverence, placing her prominently in the center of an empty nightclub. The figure’s hands are gently placed on top of each other and her clothes are scattered on the floor. The foreboding presence of three policemen suggests a poignant parallel with one of Forrester’s best-known works, ‘Three Wicked Men’ (1982) – now in the collection of the Tate, UK – prompted by the death of his friend Winston Rose while in police custody.
Denzil Forrester: With Q is on display at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, 25-28 Old Burlington St, London W1S 3AN (two minutes’ walk from the Royal Academy of Arts) from now until 8 April. The exhibition coincides with the artist’s two major US solo exhibitions in 2023 at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, in January and at ICA Miami in April.