Sunday, May 12, 2019

Dusti Bonge' at the Ogden Museum

Dusti Bongé holds the unlikely distinction of being Mississippi's first prominent modern artist. Unlikely, because the words Mississippi and “modern art” do not fit neatly together, yet Bongé spent most of her life in her Biloxi hometown even as she became famous for abstract expressionist canvases associated with New York School painters like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. What linked them was the legendary Manhattan gallerist Betty Parsons, who exhibited her work from the late 1940s until 1976 even though she and her husband, Archie, only lived in New York briefly before going back to Biloxi in 1934. It was Archie Bongé, a Nebraska cowboy-turned-artist who introduced Dusti to painting soon after he and the then-aspiring actress were married. What this adds up to is an iconic life that reflected America's cultural currents from regionalism and surrealism to abstraction, which in her work blended boldness with the Mississippi coast's humid dreaminess until her death, at 90, in 1993.

After Archie died in 1936, Dusti, born Eunice Lyle Swetman in 1903, dedicated her life to painting. Early landscapes and still lifes like “Sunflowers” recall the mystical elementalism of her painter friend, Walter Anderson and the rhythmic cubism of pioneer Nola modernist Paul Ninas, but as she segued into the mysteries of surrealism, her work became more psychological as we see in a 1943 self portrait, “The Balcony,” right. Inspired by her explorations of the subconscious, it is related to a series based on dreams, a theme that lasted into her high abstract expressionist period in striking works that launched an important sequence of solo exhibitions at the Betty Parsons Gallery.

It is those works that are among the most impressive in the show, ranging from her darkly classical 1958 canvas "Small World on Top of Small World, top, to the cubist elementalism of “Flight” (1971) and “Infinity” (1980). But it is perhaps the swirling vortices of her 1957 “Sail” painting, left, that most fully fuse Bonge's psychological intensity with the breezy atmospheric insouciance of the world that shaped her, the timeless tidal currents of the Gulf of Mexico in a region where all things seem to dream. ~Bookhardt / Piercing the Inner Wall: The Art oF Dusti Bongé, Through Sept. 8, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600.