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Review | ‘Itchin’ & Scratchin’’- Denzil Forrester at Spike Island ★★★★

By Kate Bowie, Second Year English

Reopening on the 4th of August at Bristol’s Spike Island, and available through virtual tour until then, Grenada-born Denzil Forrester’s  ‘Itchin’ & Scratchin’ is a kaleidoscopic sensory overload.

The career-spanning retrospective follows Forrester through forty years of art. His early work is energized by the 1980’s dub reggae scene of East London, the canvas depicting faceless figures illuminated by club lights. They seamlessly transition into work produced during his travels to Rome, New York and Jamaica, before settling as Forrester himself has in Cornwall.

A dub-reggae beat pulsates through every piece. The music is palpable. Neon hues, streaming lights and sharp lines either refuse to let the eye rest or draw it to images of disco balls and speakers, evoking the overwhelming reality of the dance floor. Forrester’s early work portrays this most obviously.

Sketches of each moment on the dance floor were produced within a single track during the very discos they represent, before being expanded upon with colour in the studio. The clear speed and certainty of the artists’ hand transports viewers to the intensity of eighties dance halls.

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The open-air parties of Kingston in Forrester’s more recent work highlights the unquestionably important role of afro-Caribbean music throughout the exhibition. A lighter hand and more subdued palette is evident in Forrester’s latest pieces; sketchy lines pointing towards a slightly softer nightclub atmosphere, tinged by a nostalgic memory.

Born 1956 Forrester himself moved to London from Grenada with his family at the age of ten. While studying for an BA in fine art he became a regular at East London dub-reggae clubs. Over the following decades, he has continued to experiment with modes of portraying the atmosphere and energy of the nocturnal scenes.

The human figures of his art are both intimately singular and monolithic. Squeezed onto the canvas as if they might topple off at any point, individual bodies move in sharp defiant lines that contribute to a sense of group euphoria.

These staggering club settings perhaps resonate all the more after venues closures over the last year. Their dreamlike fantastical nature almost performs a night of dancing for the viewer, their eyes joining in with the movement of figures at a time when their bodies cannot.

The delirious joy and movement of the art is perhaps undermined by its bleak surroundings; white walls and harsh lights jarringly juxtapose the paintings. The lack of music in the exhibition also seems to be somewhat of an oversite, as those unfamiliar with the reverberation of a  dub-reggae soundscape miss an essential part of the work.

The digitized version of the exhibition, created in light of the pandemic, fills some of the gaps left by the in-person exhibition. The virtual tour includes the echoing rhythms of the genre, allowing viewers to be sensorially engulfed. The camera sweeps over images of the art, intensifying the movement already evoked in pieces that refuse to centre viewers.

The online exhibition also offers an audio guide and interview with Denzil Forrester, speaking about everything from the title of the show to his wife’s initial reaction to the works. ‘With this way of drawing’, he says, ‘the main thing you need to do is feel what other people are doing. Empathy.’ The connection between art, music and human connection is certainly undeniably thought-out ‘Itchin’ & Scratchin’’.

The Spike Island exhibition will be open from the 4th of August to the 31st of August. You can check out the virtual tour here.

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Featured Image: Unsplash / Yannis Papanastasopoulos