As a visual artist, Lewis Bryden looks for something unique and striking: a truly exotic landscape or an amazing and unique face. Observing a great diversity of people and places constantly inspires him. For Bryden, the racial mix of people is aesthetically beautiful, romantic and mysterious.
Lewis Bryden began going to Mexico annually about fifteen years ago. He has traveled throughout Mexico with a home base in Acapulco. While doing portraits of friends in Acapulco, he hit upon the idea of recording, representing and exemplifying, in a series of paintings, the average, everyday person in Mexican life.
Traveling with friends to remote, mountainous areas of Guerrero, Bryden continued to capture the faces of typical rural Mexicans. He also painted portraits at the markets in the heart of Acapulco. As an artist interested in texture and color, Bryden became fascinated with the variety of facial structures and skin tones he found among the people on these local and regional trips.
Although, he wanted to paint random strangers observed on the street, it was difficult for Bryden to break through their natural reserve and the Spanish-English language barrier. He began working with a local guide named Poncho. Through ordinary conversation, Poncho was able to make each sitter comfortable and learn a bit of each sitter's personal life story.
Mexico is the most populous Spanish-speaking country in the world. Sixty to seventy per cent of its population is a racial mix of Amerindian, European (mostly Spanish), African and Asian. After independence from Spain, the concept of the "mestizo", born from the combined culture of the new and the old worlds, became the identity of modern Mexico.
Mexico's Guerrero state is particularly diverse culturally and racially. During the viceregal period in Mexico (1520-1820), many Africans arrived as slaves. Chinese and Filipinos arrived on merchant ships from Manila to Acapulco. Even though the majority of Mexico's population is mestizo and Amerindian, Iberian-born Spaniards have traditionally been at the top of the social, political and cultural system. Generic portraits from the viceregal period often attempted to create an imagined ideal social order in the Americas through an intriguing series of "caste paintings," which meticulously delineated Latin American racial groups.
Portraiture is an art form with which most of us identify. It is a visual expression that provides valuable insight into the lives and minds of the artist and sitter, as well as their time and place. Portraits connect the individual to the family, the family to the community, and the community to the nation. They bind together disparate populations and help establish national identity.
Lewis Bryden has an interest and affection for the people of Mexico. His series of twenty-nine portrait paintings can be visually read as a group, but the qualities of each painting can also be appreciated separately. Each portrait is a character and psychological study of a unique person. The first picture Bryden painted in this series was his goddaughter, Lupita. José, a taxi driver, was the subject of his second portrait. Some of the sitters are related to each other: Don Beto and Santa are husband and wife. Hipolito and Maru are father and daughter. Maria and Rosa are mother and daughter. Catalina and Irma are also mother and daughter. Antonio and Rosalinda are brother and sister.
Every picture in the series is very direct, there is little for the eye to focus on, other than the facial characteristics of the subject. The directional gaze of each sitter is varied: some look directly at the viewer, others look off to left or off to right. The different position of each head has the effect of changing how engaged or disengaged each portrait is with the observer.
There are an equal number of women and men, excepting the triptych of Miracle. Young and old people are both well represented. Certain faces seem to float in front of tropical foliage (palm, torch ginger, philodendron), which in some way helps to further define the mood or character of the composition.
The skin tone and facial landscape of each portrait is different. Some are very smooth with bright highlights from the light source. Others are very lined and careworn with flat or no highlights. The use of color throughout this portrait series is bright, but flat, like the way Diego Rivera and other artists from the United States and Mexico used color in the 1930's.
Among the younger sitters, all of the clothing is very casual: tee-shirts and sweatshirts. The portraits of older men often feature long sleeve collared shirts and hats. The shirt Juan is wearing could be an Amerindian pattern with the colors of Mexico 's flag.
The "Miracle Triptych" is exceptional among the series. It is the only set of portraits painted in Bryden's studio in New York. The sitter comes from a Mexican family that has lived in Texas for several generations. The people and culture of the United States and Mexico have been inextricably linked since North America was first "discovered" by Europeans. In two of the three pictures, Miracle is wearing jewelry and clothing brought back from Mexico by Bryden's wife, Elizabeth. These two pictures are full of artifice and staged to show a beautiful, young American girl in tradition Mexican costume. The dark background of these pictures highlights this beautiful clothing and jewelry. Miracle's hair is tied back away from her face. The third of the three pictures is more casual and informal. Miracle wears a bright red modern blouse. This picture reminds us that the sitter is really contemporary and American.
Miracle's face is very expressive and essentially Mexican. Each of the three pictures shows a different mood and facial composition of the sitter. "Miracle Watching" highlights the curiosity of the sitter. "Miracle, Hand on Chin" is more pensive and reflective. "Miracle with Pearl Necklace" has a mysterious feminine quality, not unlike classical portraits from the Renaissance, such as da Vinci's famous Mona Lisa or later, Vermeer's Girl with Pearl Earring. This picture best reflects the Renaissance ideal of female beauty and deportment.
In his heart, Lewis Bryden seeks to create the best picture possible. His desire to master the art and materials of oil painting is extremely strong. This portrait series is about Bryden's involvement in the community of Acapulco and Guerrero and his love of painting. Lewis Bryden reminds the observer that, "It takes attention and skill to appreciate a quiet painting, a kind of skill that comes from reflection and rumination, not confrontation and agitation."