Bislacchi and Megan Elliott, February 2017
Denzil Forrester is a painter of urban culture. Born in the small island of Grenada in 1956, he lived there until the age of 11, when he moved to London with his mother. Living in London was “quite the opposite” to living in the West Indies, according to Denzil. Back in Grenada, Denzil had a higher quality of life, in a “beautiful area”. He then grew up in East London and, in his late teens, became fascinated by all-night reggae clubs and parties. His love for this music can be seen through the rhythmic quality of his paintings and his bright colour palette is reflective of the costumes worn at the London parties and of the carnivals he experienced as a child. Denzil reflects: “Every evening people would turn up in the square – they would dance, sing & play the steel drums”. 

Denzil Forrester, Sample the B Side, 1982 Oil on canvas, 66.93 x 89.37 in/ 170 x 227 cm.

Courtesy of White Columns, New York

Bislacchi: Let’s talk a little bit about your background and about where you grew up.


Denzil Forrester: I was fostered by a family from my village for 7 years, whilst my mum was in England. In the West Indies, the only contact I had to art was in the church - the only connection I had was with stained glass and stuff like that. Music had just arrived - the radio had just arrived. When I came to London, I had lots of new brothers and sisters. I couldn’t go to secondary school straight away (because of my age). So, I hung around at my mum’s house and she taught me how to sew bags. As soon as I was old enough to go to school (aged 12), I went to school during the day, came back home at 4pm and made bags until 10pm at night. That went on for 4 years! 

B: Over the last few years, you have gained more recognition, on both a national and international level, showing in both London and the US. Your paintings are also in important collections worldwide. How does it feel to have this level of recognition?

DF: It’s quite exciting because I’ve been painting for just over 40 years now, and for half of that I’ve been teaching. I usually got into group exhibitions, like the summer show (at the Royal Academy) and I had a major one-man show in the early 90s, but nothing as big as what has happened to me recently. It takes quite a while to get used to! The main thing is, I’ve been taken up by an artist, not just a commercial gallery.


This artist is Peter Doig. First impressed by Denzil’s work at his MA show at the Royal College in 1983, Peter contacted Denzil two years ago and since then Peter Doig and Matthew Higgs have curated Denzil’s major solo shows.


DF: The good thing about being recognised by your own peers, who have been through the whole thing and have been taken on internationally, is that they don’t just want to show your paintings and sell them. It’s bigger than that – they make sure they get the right people, get the paintings in the right place. They really do care about you.


B: What was the reaction of Peter Doig and Matthew Higgs when they saw your work for the first time?


DF: Peter saw my work in 1983 and obviously really liked it. He probably understands it a lot more than, say, an artist who didn’t travel a lot. Peter was born in Edinburgh, then moved to the West Indies at age 3, living in Trinidad until aged 12; then he moved to Canada and then to London, where he went to Central Saint Martin’s at age 19. He had a good idea about different world views. 33 years after seeing my painting in 1983, he contacted me, saying, “could we meet and have a talk, I like your work a lot”. Matthew is an artist, a painter himself, but mainly curates exhibitions now. He knows a lot about contemporary art in this country. Peter liked all my work, generally. A lot of the ones Matthew selected were from the early 80s, when I was going to nightclubs.

“The good thing about being recognised by your own that they don’t just want to show your paintings and sell them. It’s bigger than that – they make sure they get the right people, get the paintings in the right  place.”

Denzil Forrester, Night Herd, 1982. Pastel and compressed charcoal on paper, 22 x 30 in.

Courtesy of White Columns, New York 

Denzil Forrester, Club Knights, 1981. Pastel and compressed charcoal on paper, 22 x 30 in.

Courtesy of White Columns, New York 

"I had to go every night and draw and draw - so that I could get a similar kind of rhythm. If you can get that feeling in your painting, it works."

B: Your online biography says that you were one of the few black artists who got a degree in the 80s. What was going on in that period in London with the young Denzil?


DF: In the 80s, when I went to art school, I realised I was quite lucky, because to see a black person doing art was lucky. There were probably 2 or 3 of us, but I was the only one doing painting. I was quite lucky… because, if you think about my background, and a lot of artist’s backgrounds, their families are often not interested in art, so usually it’s up to you. My lucky break was meeting my partner, Philippa. I met her when I was 16. She came from an arty background. Her dad was a painter; her mum did contemporary dance and she had been painting since she was born. She invited me to a place in Dalston that her dad ran…it was brilliant, an art centre. It had 3 big art rooms, with all the materials. You could go there from 18:00-21:30 every night. I spent 2 years attending the art centre and Philippa’s dad helped me build a portfolio. I had an interview at Central School of Art to do a Foundation and got in. Then, I decided to stay at Central, and did 3 years there.


After a year or two, you have to make your mind up about what you are going to focus on. I messed around, experimented. Then, I started going to these house parties and enjoyed it – so I started drawing these people.


B: Your work does look intensely musical, characterized by rhythm. Every character looks deeply involved in the scene. It reminds me a bit of the 60s and 70s for its peculiar style. Indeed, as you said, your work took off when you started going to all night “blues” clubs in East London, where they played reggae. What was it that fascinated you about these places?


DF:  I didn’t realise it myself then, but these people, who were making the records and running the nightclubs, came from similar circumstances to me. With reggae, they could express themselves. If you are young when you come over to London, you add something new and dynamic to the culture. It wasn’t too complicated; it was very direct and simple. At the parties I used to go to, people did lots of dancing – couples dancing, people dancing as groups. It’s not an isolated form of music – it looks at different nationalities, mixes it up and puts it together. In terms of my work, it helped me to simplify and distil it more. The clubs I went to were full of Rastafarians. I loved all the dress up and the music. The beat, once you get to the rhythm, is incredible. I had to go every night and draw and draw – so that I could get a similar kind of rhythm. If you can get that feeling in your painting, it works. 

Denzil Forrester, In the House of Dub, 1988. Oil on board, 48.82 x 72.44 in/ 124 x 184 cm.

Courtesy of White Columns, New York

DF: It was very, very dark there, in terms of light - I paint a lot brighter. It helped me to simplify my palette too, the colours. I use lots of heads. The Rasta’s in those days used to wear amazing hats. They are circular in shape, so I used to use a lot of head and very tiny bit of torso. How these go together, and against each other, helps the rhythm of the piece.


B: Although your paintings are based on representational elements, it seems like, intentionally, you also introduce abstraction within the composition. It this planned or is it something that evolves when painting? What is your process when building up to and starting a painting?

DF: Because I came from an abstract background, most of my tutors were mainly abstract painters (due to American abstract expressionism). Hoyland went to the Royal Academy and he was, at first, very figurative. They went abstract to get away from all that stuff - in those days, it was quite radical. They came from a figurative background, so they had a very good structure - they were taught to draw and paint. When I went to art school, I was impressed with the things they were doing but I knew it wasn’t for me. But, what helped me a lot was the gesture drawings. Because I was drawing in the nightclubs, in the dark, I couldn’t see what I was doing. I was there with my big A1 piece of paper and I’m trying to draw not looking – there is then an abstract element. That’s what helped the painting a lot. You are trying to break away and get away from how you normally work. If you are doing it in the dark, you are much more free and expressive.


I always have about 3 or 4 drawings around me when I start painting; I go for an energy – there is abstraction in the drawing. Some of the heads could be like a football or a stone or a moon or something. They have all these different meanings to them. Abstraction is great, I think, when it comes through figuration. A lot of the greats, like Pollock, Gorky etc. were originally figurative artists. Even Rothko. It makes it richer because you can look at something and sense and feel something else is there, other than just say a circle or a vertical column. I like abstraction, good abstraction, but I think I have to have something else behind it. The nightclub is like a swarm of bees – you get a strange feeling. It’s incredible…when I think about it, I get excited.

"The nightclub is like a swarm of bees – you get a strange feeling. It’s incredible…when I think about it, I get excited."

Denzil Forrester, Night Hunters, 1982. Oil on Board, 72.44 x 48.82 in/ 184 x 124 cm. Courtesy of White Columns, New York 

B: It was in the late 80s that the YBA’ first exhibited together at Freeze, an exhibition arranged by Damien Hirst in 1988. Then, it was thanks to Charles Saatchi that the group gained prominence within the art world. How do you think that this group affected London and the art world at the time? What was your reaction to their work and rise to fame and did it have any effect on your own practice?


DF: It didn’t have much effect on my own practice, because a lot of it was to do with sensationalism and fame. They were looking to shock people, but shock people with stuff that hasn’t got too much substance, that is kind of superficial to me. The original Saatchi gallery was brilliant, in St Johns Wood. I enjoyed the exhibitions, but…Saatchi would use you for his empire and you’d get recognised because of Saatchi. Too me, that is not what Fine Art is about. But, they are in the art arena, the creative arena.

Like you said, they started in the late 80s. When I started, it was the abstract era. The abstract era went and I was in-between. The abstract people were more interesting to me – Jennifer Durant, John Hoyland (both Denzil’s tutors at the Royal College). The installation and sensation stuff didn’t affect me so much, because it wasn’t to do with painting, using a bare canvas. The only thing that they affect is painters getting into the limelight. It didn’t inspire me, that’s all. They wanted to make big money and become famous – however, Damien Hirst is quite honest about this.


B: Which artists did influence your work early on in your career and do they still resonate with you today?

DF: I like artists like Van Gogh, for the emotional intensity of painting. Someone like that paints quite quick and actioned. When I went to Italy, I was amazed by Caravaggio. The intensity and the drama, the composition, the light and dark - I was really impressed. 

"I like... something that makes the thing live ... that gives it some kind of energy. You paint because you know it's possible to capture it"

Van Gogh is quite interesting, as he only had about 10 years to do what he did. He drew for 5 years and painted for 5/6 years. He really gave it his all. We used to go to Amsterdam a lot, we went to the Van Gogh museum and that was very impressive! What Michelangelo did with the Sistine chapel is incredible. Rembrandt is a lovely painter as well. What Rembrandt does with just a head, a sleeve or an arm. It’s very simple the things I like, but they get something that makes the thing live, that gives it something else, gives it some kind of energy. You paint it because you know it’s possible to capture it. It’s very difficult to explain that in words, but you have to actually do it, you have to try and get it out on the canvas. If it doesn’t work it doesn’t. I like a lot of African art – when I went to New York in the mid-80s, they had an amazing collection of tribal art.


B: It is evident that your work deals with political issues related the London Afro-Caribbean community, for instance in the 80s. However, I was also wondering whether any other political or social events inform or affect your work; for instance, Brexit has divided the UK and is currently influencing a lot of artists. Is this something that you feel has affected you/your practice, or is it something you would be interested in exploring?


DF: I love Europe. It doesn’t affect me personally, but I don’t like what’s happening. I don’t know how it’s going to affect my work in the future. It’s interesting, when you’re surrounded by something that you totally think is wrong. At present, I am working on a painting to do with making bags in the 70s (relating to when my mum taught me to sew). The country has always been full of people from abroad coming to do things – I think this is where this country has inspired me. A lot of people have been spoilt, they don’t realise the richness of this country is to do with all these people, from the West Indies, Europe etc. 

Denzil Forrester, Black Moon, 1983. Conte and compressed charcoal on paper, 22.05 x 29.72 in / 56 x 75.5 cm. Courtesy of White Columns, New York

Denzil Forrester, Solar System, 1985. Pastel and compressed charcoal on paper, 22 x 30 in.

Courtesy of White Columns, New York

DF: They don’t realise how much it is going to change and they cannot stop it. They cannot stop change. They cannot go back. I think the thing that affects me more is to do with the people in my local community. A lot of the work I did, to do with political things, was about my friends being arrested and killed by the police. So, if its personal, if it’s closer to me, I think it will affect me.


B: After so many years living and working in England, what have you inherited from British art?


DF: Well, I’m part of it now aren’t I really – I grew up in it, without knowing. You grow up in it, you’re influenced by it. I went to British art schools. If I didn’t come to this country, I probably wouldn’t have done art. The person who I am now… a lot of it is to do with coming to London.