Dusti Bonge 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 Bonge spent most of her life in her hometown of Biloxi as she became famous for abstract expressionist canvases associated with New York School painters like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still.
Who linked them was the legendary Manhattan gallerist Betty Parsons, who exhibited Bonge’s work from the late 1940s until 1976, even though Bonge and her husband Archie lived in New York only briefly before returning to Biloxi in 1934. It was Archie, a Nebraska cowboy-turned-artist who introduced Dusti to painting after he and the then-aspiring actress were married.
From ancient times until at least the early Renaissance, art, science and spirituality were considered part of a magical totality in which all…
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. She died in 1993 at 90.
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 New Orleans modernist Paul Ninas.
As she segued into the mysteries of surrealism, Bonge’s work became more psychological, as we see in her 1943 self-portrait “The Balcony” (pictured). 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.
Those works are among the most consistently impressive in this show at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, ranging from her darkly classical 1956 canvas “Whirlpool” to the cubist elementalism of “Flight” (1971) and “Infinity” (1980).
The swirling vortices of her 1955 painting “Sails” 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.
Through Sept. 8. Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., (504) 539-9650; www.ogdenmuseum.org.
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