When I first saw Denzil Forrester’s paintings, at an exhibition at Stephen Friedman last May, I did what I usually do when I see an artist’s work for the first time: try to think of what - or who - it reminds me of. The connection I made in my head with Forrester was with the Italian photographer Massimo Vitali. Maybe not the most obvious kinship, but both artists have a love of the crowd - party scenes packed with people looking their best. Crowds were, for obvious reasons, on my mind.
There are obviously many differences between the two, extending well beyond their choice of medium. Rather than Vitali’s precisely delineated smart beach resorts and tragic-looking nightclubs, Forrester’s scenes are lyrical, colourful, hazy purples and pinks picking out huge stacks of speakers in long, narrow, rooms - the disco ball overhead, the firmly shut security doors on the far one. He cites other artistic connections, saying in interviews that he learned from Monet and Cézanne, those pastel-coloured masters, as well as the clear sunlight of Italy, where he travelled in the 1980s.
Back in London, he went to a club called All Nations, in Hackney. I can’t even imagine how grotty that part of the city was in the depressed 80s, but under Forrester’s sympathetic brush, it becomes a magical playground, rainbow-coloured soundwaves bouncing off the walls and ceiling and over the heads of the beaming partygoers.
Forrester’s gone nationwide, not only in this show in the very smart Nottingham Contemporary gallery, which features Night Strobe, pictured above, but also on the other side of the Thames, preparing an enormous public work at the top of the staircase in Brixton tube station, as part of the Art of the Underground series. (Another work from which I’ve previously covered on here .)
The artist was involved in the dub-reggae scene back then, but there’s something deliberately universal in the crowd in Night Strobe. All nations, in fact. Forrester has explained to an interviewer that he sketched on A1 paper in the clubs back then, not wanting to capture faces, but movement. He rationed himself to one sketch per song; this explains the fast, loose strokes.
“In these clubs, city life is recreated in essence: sounds, lights, police sirens, bodies pushing and swaying in a smoke-filled room,” he added. It’s nice to think of a time where bodies push and sway with no worries, only colours and light.
Denzil Forrester: Itchin & Scratchin is at Nottingham Contemporary (Nottingham). February 08 - May 03 2020