By John A. Parks

as featured in Watercolor magazine, Fall 2001

Ethereal, benign and iconic, the recent series of heads by Reginald Case, presents an arresting sense of the human presence. Locked deep within a heavy gloss surface, Case has painted notions of heads rather than fully-fledged descriptions. Using a simple palette of pinks and oranges the artist suggests rather than renders the form, silhouetting the finish in front of a black background. The features do not conform to real human anatomy; no attempt is made to describe properly the end of the nose, the nuances of eye orbits or the way in which human lips are actually constructed.

Rather the face has been simplified and restated in the way that much primitive art rebuilds the human body as a series of completely invented forms. We are reminded of the statues of Easter Island, the impassive faces of Egyptian kings or the distant smiles of Cycladic sculpture.

Guaches Grid
Guaches Grid

Case begins each head entirely without reference drawing freely with the brush. His technique is fairly simple. He mixes gouache on a flat palette and applies it with a round sable brush. He works on small pieces of very heavy watercolor paper or even cardboard, never more than six inches across and builds the gouache quickly and thickly. He works dark to light on the head itself, occasionally using a slightly damp brush to blend the paint. Since he is not attempting a full rendering he is able to leave some of his accidents in place, little nudges of brush marks which seem to have an insistent roundness.

The black background is applied later and has the happy effect of making the form appear, at least at first glance, to be more solid than it is.Once the image is achieved to the artist’s satisfaction, he applies a thick coat of gloss polyurethane. This has to be done quickly and surely so that it does not disturb the surface of the gouache underneath. The result is that instead of the usual matte finish of gouache the pieces have a deep, almost three-dimensional finish more akin to enamel than to a water based paint. This device has the further effect of increasing our sense of distance from the subject, making it appear to be lost to us, trapped deep in some other world.

“I have often tried to use materials in a somewhat untraditional manner,” says Case. “There is something very exciting about discovering some entirely new way to combine materials. It can entirely transform the sense of an image — sometimes it can reveal whole new worlds.”

How did this work come about?

“I’ve always been interested in the portrait,” says the artist. “But I never wanted to paint a traditional descriptive head. I was toying with this technique of putting polyurethane on top of the gouache and I began to paint heads. I did one and then another and another. Working without reference I became fascinated with how they began to suggest individuals I know as I did them. And yet none of them actually look like portraits of anybody.”

Indeed the curious thing about these heads is that even though they are all different they present a remarkably consistent presence.

“I’ve been intrigued by the whole idea of a series of images ever since seeing Warhol’s work back in the sixties,” says the artist. “In a series each of the images informs the others and you come back to view each individual image with an entirely new perspective.” Certainly the heads work well as a series, a long set of variations on a theme almost as though the artist is trying to pin down, over and over again, some intangible quality common to all humanity. This sense of some kind of universal component is furthered by the fact that the heads are androgynous — their sex is indeterminate. What were the principle influences on the artist?

“I thought of Picasso, of Modigliani, of Brancusi — all of those people,” says Case. “I have always been interested in how artists in the early twentieth century were inspried by primitive art. I find Picasso’s photographs of Africans and African sculpture particularly fascinating. But I was also very taken recently when I saw an exhibition of Fayum portraits at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.”

The Fayum portraits, which come from the town of the same name in Lower Egypt, were done by the Greek community there in the first and second centuries A.D. They are small funerary portraits on wooden panels, executed in encaustic and placed on the front of coffins. Encaustic, a technique in which pigment is mixed in wax and painted while still hot, gives a shiny and lustrous depth to the work combined with free and open handling. The Fayum portraits themselves, preserved in a warm, dry climate for two thousand years, have an almost eerie freshness and immediacy.

But since they are funerary portraits and since many of them are of children and young people, an inevitable sadness hangs over them. There is something of this in Case’s work, a distant wistfulness. His figures stare out at us from the aspic depths of the shiny surface, faintly happy, but sadly belonging entirely to another world.

And what of the future?

“I am going to stay carefully focused on the head motif,” says Case. “I do plan to explore some variations. I was thinking about Bellini’s profiles and the extraordinary presence they can create. Perhaps even some three-quarter views.”

Clearly Case’s obsession with these reinvented heads will keep him occupied for some considerable time to come. The variations, like the variety of humanity itself, will certainly prove to be endless.

The series of portrait heads, painted by Reginald Case, were partially inspired by the Fayum portraits in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. They are painted with gouache using a basic palette of color similar to encaustic, and then coated with polyurethane.

Artist/Writer John Parks, in his article, “Gaining Insight Through Repetition,” describes these paintings as “ethereal, benign, and iconic presenting an arresting sense of the human presence.”

The series of paintings by Case took on a prophetic relevance after the events of 9/11 as photos and images of the missing appeared in the media, on TV and were posted throughout NYC. By conveying a consistent and repeated image of an ancient and present testimony to the human condition, they stand as iconographic witnesses that parallel the haunting images of 9/11.

Case’s work has been shown for many years at Allan Stone Gallery, in NYC, along with the paintings of Richard Estes and Wayne Theibaud, whose work also represent the iconography of American life. Case’s work has been included in numerous group shows nationwide and has been shown in one-man exhibitions in several major American museums with accompanying catalogs.

Works by Case are included in the permanent collections of the Guggenheim, Fogg, Smithsonian and other American museums. An extensive bibliography includes reviews in The New York Times, Art News, Arts Magazine and other publications.

Case recieved a BFA and MFA from Boston University studying with Walter Murch and Robert Gwathmey.