A Life of Art

Over his long and prolific career, Reginald Gammon – or "Reggie" to all who knew him – produced hundreds of paintings, drawings, photographs, and limited edition prints. Although he occasionally painted still lifes and landscapes, the human figure was his essential means of expression. Born in Philadelphia during the Depression, he would use the figure to express his intense interest in the human condition. Reggie's work comments on a large range of subject matters and was often inspired by actual events and personal experiences.

During his initial training at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art in the early '40s, Reggie created accomplished figure drawings and watercolors. After moving to New York City in 1948, he experimented with cubism, something that found its way into his work occasionally over the next 50 years. At the same time, Reggie was introduced to oil painting, and his painting style acquired a classical refinement which is most visible in the many portraits he created throughout his life. Reggie's most publicized images are his complex social commentaries from the 1960s which were inspired by the Civil Rights movement and the Scottsboro trials. Reggie's political pieces exhibited a very bold, graphic, black and white approach.

After accepting a professorship in the Arts and Humanities at the University of Michigan in Kalamazoo in 1970, his work became looser and more experimental. While working on a series of "Family Portraits" in sepia tones during the early '70s, Reggie started to introduce applications of fabric, rope, ticking and raffia into his pieces. Always courageous, he spent all of 1976 building a three-dimensional, interactive and highly political installation titled "The Great American Midway". None of the pieces from this installation survive. While researching the idea of county fairs and sideshows, Reggie became very interested in body art since, at that time, tattoos could only be found on soldiers, carnival workers, and criminals. At that time, Reggie's painting style exhibited flatter shapes and a more flamboyant color palette which was clearly influenced by pop art. Reggie concentrated on a series on tattoo art both on canvas and in serigraphy. It seems only natural that this interest in tattoo aroused his interest in African forms of body ornamentation and African art in general; the resulting "African Series" was completed in the early '80s.

The immersion in his African heritage inspired him to explore the influence of African Americans on the American culture. Music especially had always been close to Reggie's heart, and he created a large body of work on gospel singers, both in acrylic on canvas and in watercolor. These were the last watercolors Reggie would produce, but, during the late '80s, Reggie's passion for drawing inspired him to explore the medium of pastel. In addition, he returned to his love of portrait painting where he focused on depicting prominent African-American figures such as Jack Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. He also painted friends, family members, students and fellow professors at WMU.

After his retirement in 1991, Reggie moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and quickly immersed himself into the local art community. He continued to work on his portraits while producing a series of six large, complexly layered canvases comprising his autobiography. One of the pieces commented on his recent triple bypass which he referred to as "his second chance". The bypass was followed by doctor's orders to exercise regularly and Reggie joined a gym. This in turn inspired the artist's health club images, a humorous rendition of contemporary society's addiction to spandex and sweat. At this time, Reggie fell in love with oil pastel, and he also resumed his love for printmaking. During the mid '90s, Reggie started on a series of images of blues and jazz musicians which he continued until his passing.

Reggie was an avid reader and always researched his subjects well, often collecting newspaper clippings and books on a particular topic well beyond the completion of his painting. It is quite evident that Reginald Gammon often looked beyond the African American experience and the parameters of his own time. Reggie's work speaks of his keen perception of the human race, his curiosity about cultural behavior and taboos, and his wonderful sense of humor.

Regina Held
Director, New Grounds Gallery