New York

Denzil Forrester, LITTLE SHAKA, 1985, oil on board, 46 1/2 × 30 1/4".

Denzil Forrester, LITTLE SHAKA, 1985, oil on board, 46 1/2 × 30 1/4".

Denzil Forrester

White Columns

Denzil Forrester, LITTLE SHAKA, 1985, oil on board, 46 1/2 × 30 1/4".

I have an enduring memory of an early-1990s set by legendary dub reggae DJ Jah Shaka at the North London club the Rocket that garnered the performer all the more respect for his stubborn reliance on a single turntable: no hyperactive cutting and scratching here. Shaka’s simple, unhurried approach signaled absolute confidence in a perfect selection of tracks, the effect of which was immediate and immersive. The aural space that dub establishes through the use of echo, reverb, and other effects—Claude Debussy’s oft-quoted line about music residing in the space between the notes is nowhere more applicable—is reflected too in Grenada-born artist Denzil Forrester’s paintings and drawings of performances by Shaka and others.

This belated first American airing of Forrester’s work from the early ’80s—cocurated by White Columns director Matthew Higgs with Scottish painter Peter Doig—provided an atmospheric look back at an era marked by not only the reigns of two different subcultures in the forms of dub and punk rock (scenes and sounds that intersected only occasionally), but also a rise in conservatism (Thatcher and Reagan) and more extreme ethno-nationalism (the National Front). It is significant then that the “blues” clubs Forrester depicts were not only places to dance, but also gathering spots for the London Afro-Caribbean community; Higgs emphasizes the renewed resonance of such images of gathering in our own moment of division and intolerance. It’s notable too that these crowds have a certain internal democracy; the DJs are not raised above the dancers but occupy the same floor space, and the venues themselves are intimate.

Forrester’s paintings are characterized by a rich, earthy palette, energetically scrubbed brushwork, and compositions that aim at a rhythmic fusion of figures with their environments, suggesting something of the aural world that their subjects inhabit. In LITTLE SHAKA, 1985, for example, a group of figures stand behind a barred partition that turns their heads into musical notes. And in CROWNS OF DUB, 1983, more hatted heads are clustered together, their diverse hues also hinting at musical color. Towering speaker cabinets make frequent appearances, further reminding us of the centrality of sound to such get-togethers. “In these clubs,” explained Forrester in 1986, “city life is recreated in essence; sounds, lights, police sirens, bodies pushing and swaying back and forth.” The artist’s pastel-and-charcoal drawings, all made within the few minutes it took a single song to play out, depict the same scenarios but admit more light and space.

On display alongside the dub paintings and drawings were a few entries from another body of work made around the same time that deals with the sometimes brutal policing of London’s Afro-Caribbean community, focusing in particular on the 1981 death of Forrester’s friend Winston Rose while in police custody. The most imposing entry, NIGHT HUNTERS, 1982, depicts two uniformed policemen marching rigidly on either side of a bearded Rastafarian man carrying a small bag—the cops, for their part, have truncheons at the ready. Behind this trio, another officer appears to be contorted in a dance move, while other figures look on. Forrester doesn’t focus on facial expressions, so the human relationships in his work are described entirely through posture and gesture; in spite of the simple expressionism that defines NIGHT HUNTERS—and the artist’s work in general—there is an ambiguity to both elements that prevents the work from becoming overly didactic, and which has allowed its message to be heard again.

Michael Wilson