Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Dusti Bongé on the Coast

Two exhibitions for one artist, from the Ohr O-Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi to the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, the works of Dusti Bongé are on the walls. Born in Biloxi, Bongé came back to her hometown after a stint in Chicago, then New York where she was represented by the Betty Parsons gallery. She chose to paint for ...the sake of painting and ignore the pressures of the art world. The rediscovery of the artist is long overdue and these two exhibitions are the occasion for the public to view the works, known mainly by insiders or friends.

My journey to discover the artist started at the Ohr O-Keefe Museum of Art. In the large gallery, five early works from the 40's are gathered on one side: landscapes, boats, buildings and two self-portraits. Representative of the painter's realistic style influenced by Cubism during that period, they are a testimony of her love for colors. The bulk of the exhibition consists of her later works from the early 90's, approximately twenty small watercolors on Joss paper organized around abstract or semi-abstract oil paintings from the 50's  and 80's. The eye is immediately attracted to the large oil paintings, due to their size and also their colors. Big Red, 1987, illuminates the space with its fiery vibrant reds, Infinity, 1980, another major piece with subdued colors and a poetic undertone is contrasting with darker compositions like Oyster Chorus, showing the rich palette of the artist. The small works usually 8 1/4 inches by 3 3/4 require a closer look. They represent an abstract microcosm, a visual oxymoron: small, watercolors, abstract. The vigor of the lines, the intensity of the colors, dark blue, green, bright orange give a palpable energy to the miniature pieces. The silver or gold square shaped leaves define the story. Bongé challenges the viewer by conveying her message through a small scale.
The carefully selected but limited works assembled for Bongé a retrospective left me somewhat hungry for more and  the next stop at the Walter Museum of Art did fulfill my wish.

The abundance of works representing all stages of the artist's career went beyond my expectations. Starting from the entrance, on both sides of the long hall, the paintings are displayed more or less by chronological order and continue into the gallery, right and left. My recent acquired knowledge at the Ohr allowed me to recognize the period of the 40's. The display follows the maturation of the artist's style, her search for colors and lines to reach her ultimate goal, uninhibited spontaneity. Encouraged by her husband not to attend art school, she followed his advice. The paintings are grouped by series, starting in the early 50's she investigates semi-abstraction, a game of positive and negative simple shapes against a pure background in paintings like The Marriage of Blue and Green, 1952 or Below Looks Up, 1952. Her "Circus Series" are another example of her search, full of movement with twirling shapes and a surrealistic influence. She reaches pure abstraction with paintings like Untitled White, Blue, Red Abstract, in 1956. The generous gesture, the boldness of the colors transfer on the canvas the wish of the painter to give the viewer "part of her".

 The combination of the two exhibitions allows to view the full spectrum  of Dusti Bongé's career, from the 40's till her late works from the 90's.
I concluded my trip with a visit at the Dusti Bongé Art Foundation in old town Biloxi. The 30 minutes video available on the foundation's Website, realized in 1982, gives an insight on Bongé's art from the artist's point of view.

Few female painters chose the adventure of abstract and in her quiet way, Dusti Bongé was a pioneer.

photographs by the author

"Self-Portrait", 1936-39
View of the exhibition at the Ohr O-Keefe Museum
"Untitled, White, Blue, Red Abstract", 1956
"Void #6", 1982
"Silver Beach", 1959

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