Denzil Forrester: Itchin & Scratchin, Nottingham Contemporary, review: rapture, spiritual renewal, ecstasy

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Denzil Forrester, Night Flames, detail (2012)
Denzil Forrester, Night Flames, detail (2012) Credit: Mark Blower/Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery

What does it feel like to toil away in obscurity for the best part of 40 years before success is thrust upon you? “It feels great,” grins the 64-year-old painter Denzil Forrester, as we walk through “Itchin & Scratchin”, a new exhibition of his pictures of nightclubs at Nottingham Contemporary. Here is a good-news story for everyone to savour. 

Born in Grenada in 1956, Forrester came to London aged 11 to live with his seamstress mother in Stoke Newington. A talented painter, he ended up at art school, where his work shone a light upon the reggae nightclubs in Hackney that he used to visit every Friday night. 

Forrester would position himself behind the bar, with a stick of charcoal and a roll of A1 paper, and fire off quick, instinctive drawings – each lasting no more than the length of one of the dub records blasting from the speakers – of revellers on the dancefloor. The following afternoon, he’d select the best sketches (I wish Nottingham Contemporary were showing some), and take them to his studio to make paintings. 

Forrester was working from within – depicting gestures, sensations, rhythm, movement, rather than the way things looked. He was also documenting an underground scene that, hitherto, had been ignored by British art. 

When he presented his canvases at his MA show at the Royal College, they were admired by his peers, including a young figurative painter called Peter Doig. Despite some early success, though, Forrester’s career never really took off. For 30 years, he lectured at Morley College, before retiring to Cornwall to paint seascapes. 

Denzil Forrester, Duppy Deh (2018) Credit: Mark Blower/Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery

Except that Doig – who, as he became one of the world’s most sought-after painters, never forgot the power of Forrester’s early work – had other ideas. In 2015, he emailed Forrester out of the blue, asking if he could show his work at his gallery Tramps, in his former London studio. That exhibition put Forrester, suddenly, on the map. Another followed, in New York. Smart Mayfair galleries came knocking. A seal of approval from Doig, it seems – who also bought one of Forrester’s most haunting works, “Three Wicked Men” (1982), about police brutality, and donated it to the Tate – is the art-world equivalent of a royal warrant. 

What about the paintings, though: are they any good? The short answer is: yes, they’re mostly mesmerising. Often, Forrester zooms in on small groups of dancers, using faceted forms and prismatic colours, derived from early Modernism, to evoke, as they vibrate and pulse, the chest-pounding experience of listening to throbbing dub music. Their energy is contagious, but his brooding bird’s-eye views of packed dancefloors – including, here, a very early example from 1978 – are grander. With their melancholic, purplish palette, they’re also more mysterious and profound. 

Denzil Forrester, Catch a Fire (2010) Credit: Mark/Blower/Courtesy of Denzil Forrester and Stephen Friedman Gallery 

In dark and sweaty basements, beneath mirror balls and gigantic mono speakers resembling portals to another dimension, congregations of strangely bowed, seemingly cowled figures (who remind me of the masses huddled underground in Henry Moore’s “Shelter Drawings”) celebrate a sort of communion, as they try to forget their daily woes. These aren’t superficial pictures of pleasure-seekers, one realises with a jolt, but paintings dramatizing the pursuit of rapture, spiritual renewal, ecstasy – that primal human need periodically to cast off the shackles of everyday concerns. 

As Forrester once put it, “Because of the deep hypnotic ancestral beat, dub music makes one feel purified, strong, and free of the complicated network we live in.” Transcendence, then, not hedonism, is the true subject of his work.

From February 8 until May 3; info: 0115 948 9750