Denzil Forrester on developing his painting Three Wicked Men at the RCA
From joyful depictions of dance halls and nightclubs, to the tensions between police and the
Afro-Caribbean community during the late 1970s and early 80s, Denzil Forrester has been
painting about the British Afro-Caribbean experience for nearly four decades. Born in
Grenada, Forrester came to London as a child in 1967. He graduated from the RCA in 1983
and is now based in Cornwall, where he continues to reflect on past and present aspects of
his life through vivid colour, gestural brushstrokes and frenetic compositions.
For RCA Stories, he explained how he developed the painting Three Wicked Men (1982) – now in the collection of Tate, London – while he was a student at the RCA, and why he chose to use that painting as the starting point for his recent Art on the Underground commission Brixton Blue.
Three Wicked Men
It was a very exciting time for me getting into the RCA in 1981. I thought I knew what I wanted to focus on in my painting as I had been drawing at nightclubs for a year before starting at the RCA.
Writing a thesis on the MA course was compulsory, but you had free choice on the subject. I decided to write about my friend Winston Rose, who was killed whilst in police custody that year. I attended the inquest to collect information about how he had died.
The RCA painting school was situated at the back of the V&A in the 80s with very large painting studios. In my first year I was working on large nightclub paintings as I had planned. My third painting was of Jah Shaka’s sound system. During this work I had a transformative experience: the DJ in the centre of the painting was removed and replaced by the coffin of Winston Rose. This changed the whole idea of the painting and it was transformed into a funeral – my first dark and more personal work. Suddenly because of my knowledge of how Winston had met his death, I began to make drawings that reflected this. This became The Burial of Winston Rose.
Coincidentally, around the same time I came across a drawing by my brother Richie, that he had made as a teenager. This depicted a Rasta man being escorted by two policemen on the street at night. As soon as I saw this I knew that I had to pursue this image and use it to inject my feelings about the tragedy of Winston. I also became aware of a record called Three Wicked Men by Reggae George, which included the business man, the politician and the policeman.
I knew that I needed more space in the studio at the RCA and that, for this work, it would be preferable that no one else was around. I therefore began the work during the summer holidays, when the studios were empty. I had never taken on such a large scale and dark themed work before. I wanted the three figures to almost jump out of the canvas, so they became bigger and bigger as I repeatedly changed the drawing.
I had endless problems with the colour. The painting began much too bright, I had to constantly keep darkening the blues to get a London urban street scene at night. On completing the work, I didn’t know what to think: I was unable to view such a large piece once the students came back and the space was divided up.
Two or three weeks into the term I had my second year tutorial with Professor of Painting Peter de Francia and three other tutors. Peter liked the painting, which gave me confidence to continue working on a larger scale.
I had a very productive time at the RCA: I was able to pinpoint exactly what I wanted to paint about and had excellent support from all the tutors. I was more confident and prepared for anything that followed.
Brixton BlueRevisiting Three Wicked Men
Brixton Blue is my first commission. Once I had decided to take part, I then had to decide on the image that was best for Brixton and the space. I felt that Three Wicked Men resonated with the contemporary history of Brixton. This is the fifth time that I have revisited this image. I was very conscious that I wanted this to be just another painting on show and not change my process because it was on view to such a wide audience; I am not a mural painter.
Brixton is well known for the 1980/1 riots and the heavy policing of the black community, including Operation Swamp 81 (an attempt to cut street crime in Brixton which used the Sus law to stop more than 1,000 people in six days). I think Brixton Blue evokes the more creative side of Brixton: street life and nightclub life comes together as one. I wanted this painting to have a busy more active surface. I was a bit more playful with this version of Three Wicked Men: including speakers, a DJ, strobe lighting, the underground logo and a boy with a mobile taking a photo.
Making art more accessible to people in public places can only be a good thing for everyone. I think artists should be encouraged to show their work in other spaces besides galleries that are for a select audience. Coming across art accidentally on a journey to work can make someone stop and think and that’s all it takes. Presentation and standards must not be sacrificed for the democratisation of the arts.
As part of Forrester’s Art on the Underground commission he will be in conversation with the artist Matthew Higgs, Director of White Columns, New York, at the RCA, Battersea on 23 October 6-7PM, details here.
The event is part of the Urgency of the Arts talk series organised by the School of Arts & Humanities.
Brixton Blue is on display from 19 September 2019–April 2020 at South London’s Brixton Underground station.