Denzil Forrester (Grenadian-British, born 1956), “We Itchin” (2021), 107 7/8 x 81 1/8″ (courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. © Denzil Forrester. photo: Todd-White Art Photography)
Edward Hopper once said, “If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” I believe that the power of art is its ability to capture the feelings and energy of time and place in a way that words cannot.
That is exactly what Denzil Forrester, a native of Grenada and a resident of England since the age of 10, does in his exhibition “Duppy Conqueror.”
Organized by Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and curated by Director of Curatorial Affairs Erin Dziedzic, “Duppy Conqueror” — titled for “an African word that evokes spirits and ancestors (and) is related semantically to dub” — is a dazzling presentation of Forrester’s vibrant works from the last 30 years, exploring the duality of his Caribbean-UK lived experience.
Monumental in size, Forrester’s lush oil figurative paintings employ a technique that is as energetic as it is airy. Heavily saturated with shades of blue and violet and almost watercolor-like in their tonal transitions, these works fearlessly explore themes ranging from familial relationships to reggae clubs to police brutality.
“Reading with Ma Pets” (2018), depicts Forrester reading to a beloved teacher while still in Grenada. The artist incorporates a suitcase to foreshadow his move, in 1967, to the United Kingdom. In addition to violet, this work mixes reds, greens and oranges into a luxuriant palette. In the background, the teacher’s husband wields a machete in front of the artist’s childhood home. The violet-hued eyes of the artist’s mother tenderly gaze upon the son as he reads, while a packed suitcase sits at her side.
Forrester’s work carries an electrified energy like that of the dark, sweaty, throbbing basement clubs he frequented in the ’80s and ’90s. Tapping into this energy is a part of experiencing this work. As Forrester remarked at the exhibit’s preview event, “You have to go crazy with them and give yourself over to the experience.”
“Brixton Blue,” also from 2018, explores gritty truths of the London nightlife, including the police brutality that claimed the life of a close friend of the artist, Winston Rose, in 1981. This nocturnally blue-purple toned work combines imagery of a man being beaten by a police officer as others walk by, a Rastafarian with a beat box, a couple dancing, and more. As in all his works, Forrester’s usage of marking creates flows and ebbs of action and inaction, much like that in the clubs where he found inspiration.
Forrester, who lives in Cornwall, England, comes to Kemper with an illustrious history, including an international roster of exhibitions and inclusion in prestigious collections such as the Tate Gallery in London. He has received major awards at the Royal Academy Summer Show as well as the Korn/Ferry International Award, and in December 2020 received the decoration of Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, or MBE. He holds a B.A. (Hons) degree from the Central School of Art in London and an M.A. in painting from London’s Royal College of Art.
As Forrester’s work demonstrates, navigating Black life in England is much like it is in the United States. We seek joy and love while contending with abuses of power and authority.
“Denzil Forrester: Duppy Conqueror” continues at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd., through May 7. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Closed Monday and Tuesday. For more information, 816.753.5784 or www.kemperart.org.