"What would an old master paint if he painted now? He probably wouldn't have painted gods and goddesses," said Lewis Bryden in a recent interview at R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, where the Hadley artist's "Boardwalk Idyll" paintings are now on display. While the paintings' subject matter - everyday folk enjoying the beach and boardwalk at New York City's Coney Island - is decidedly plebian, the style is classical, with a distinctive texture and dramatic lighting that recalls the works of old masters like Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Bryden, who is more often associated with his plein air-style landscapes of the Pioneer Valley, began the Coney Island series 30 years ago, and estimates that he has completed about 40 "Boardwalk Idyll" paintings in all, about half of which will be in Northampton through July 31.
The paintings are almost life-size, and each portrays a moment of interaction or isolation on the boardwalk. We see a teenage boy standing alone in an arcade, clutching a pair of sunglasses as two girls, paper cups and food wrappers in hand, walk past. A woman examines her reflection in a mirrored wall as a toddler sits beside her, her small hands on her knees. A man in a purple windbreaker says something to a woman in a pink swimsuit as they cross paths in front of a hot dog stand. Each painting is an entry point to a story that we don't see through to the end. As Bryden describes them: "They're [moments] of tranquility, waiting for something to happen."
In this sense, Bryden's paintings are snapshots of the individual worlds people live in - they don't provide the viewer with a sequential narrative, but rather suggest that each person is living out their own particular story, and as the subjects of Bryden's paintings interact with each other, they impact each others' plots. "Each one of these is a standalone story, even though I have no idea what the story is," he said.
Big city beach
The paintings have a sculptural quality thanks to a surprisingly crackled texture that Bryden says was inspired by the "crust of paint" on 19th-century French impressionist Claude Monet's well-known painting "Water Lilies." For the "Boardwalk Idyll" paintings, Bryden first coated his canvases with a base coat of a beeswax-and-linseed oil mixture, using abstract brush strokes to give the surface its texture. Then he added pigment and varnish, "as much as the canvas will take," he said. Painting over the base coat, the bumpy texture came to life beneath the images, he said. While Monet inspired the paintings' texture, Bryden, who is from New York City, chose Coney Island for its crowded setting. "It's a big city right down on the beach," he said, "It's like taking Times Square and surrounding it by ocean and sand." In other words, Coney Island is the perfect setting for throwing strangers together. "I wanted them to react to each other," he said of his subjects. He goes after the tension that is built when they "recognize that the other person exists."
The paintings were created from a mix of sketches and photographs taken of passersby at Coney Island as well as posed sessions with live models. In one case, he stumbled across a box of Kodak slides of a young man and his girlfriend, which someone had left on the street, and used them as templates for his paintings. "It was just total serendipity," he said. "I always wanted to be a painter," said Bryden, who took a detour from painting to pursue a master's degree in architecture, and never went to art school. Instead, when he returned to painting after 20 years out of school, he taught himself by copying masterpieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. His young daughter, Nell, would come, too, making her own drawings on the drop cloth below her dad's easel. In fact, Bryden's daughter bore witness to the Coney Island paintings, as well, coming along on his visits to the boardwalk, where she would eat candy apples and go on rides while he sketched and took pictures. When Bryden looked at the "Boardwalk Idyll" paintings, which span 30 years of his life, he pointed out the painting of the woman and a toddler. "My daughter was about that age when I painted that," he said.
Bryden moved to the Valley 10 years ago, where he now lives and works, often painting his landscapes from a boat on the Connecticut River - his floating studio, he says. "It's like 30 years of my life up on the walls," he said of the Michelson exhibit. "It's so exciting. They're from different times in my life but they all seem to be one piece. ... They all kind of compress in time." Bryden is quick to point out that the series isn't finished. "I'm sure I'm going to still want to paint them when I'm 85 years old," he said.