Thursday, December 10, 2009

Orcenith Lyle Bongé (1929 - 2009)

Photo by David Houston

The Ogden Museum is mourning the loss of a talented artist, great Southerner, friend to the Museum, and just a damn fine human being. Lyle Bongé passed away in his hometown of Biloxi on Monday, December 7, 2009.

Father Orcenith Lyle Bongé, a courtly citizen of Harrison County,
God-Hep-Us-Mississippi, is the signal representative of a wild eyed,
smooth-talking tribe who could charm the skin off a snake. -- Jonathan
Born in 1929, Lyle was the son of painters Archie and Dusti Bongé. Dusti was a native of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and that state's first true Modernist painter. Walter Anderson was the best man at their wedding. Lyle attended several schools including University of Southern Mississippi, University of Mexico, and the short-lived but highly influential Black Mountain College in North Carolina. He served two years in the Korean War, where he ran a darkroom. He began his career in photography after returning home to Biloxi in the early 50s. Over a span of thirty years beginning in 1955, Lyle amassed over forty-thousand negatives from shooting Mardi Gras in New Orleans. He is also known for his photo-abstractions. An accomplished sailor, he broke the world's record for single-handed cross-Gulf passage under sail in 1968. He wrote cookbooks, was a tree-topper, bank director and landlord. He also created metal sculpture.

In the foreword to The Photographs of Lyle Bongé (Jargon Society, 1982), A.D. Coleman said, "[T]here are many sides to Lyle Bongé, and a plethora of strange and curious tales to be told by and about him." No doubt the stories will continue to be told and told again about this rare gem of Zen-boho bodacity native to the Mississippi coast.

In the clipping below from a late-40s Black Mountain College's student newspaper, a young Lyle Bongé is described thusly:
He has red hair and sports a "French" mustache. He is noted for wearing a monocle on his left eye. This adds to his distinction greatly. Lyle possesses some strange but amusing hobbies. He collects skulls (from old graveyards) and animal skulls in the woods. To prove his statement that he loves "danger as a stimulant," he once lived in New York on $1.50 and a bottle of stimulant. He ate only one meal a day and that was with friends. Another hobby is sailing alone in a storm in his boat. Others include travelling, writing prose and poetry and he loves all modern art forms.

Black Mountain Student Paper
Circa 1948

A portfolio of four of Lyle's mescaline-influenced photographs titled "The Search for Vision" was included in Aperture 6:3, under the direction of Minor White. The Jargon Society published two books of his photographs, The Sleep of Reason: Lyle Bonge's Ultimate Ash-Hauling Mardi Gras Photographs (1974) and The Photographs of Lyle Bongé (1982). His photographic works are included in the permanent collections of the Mississippi Museum of Art, the George Eastman House, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Pensacola Art Museum, the Historic New Orleans Collection and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. His sculptures have been exhibited at Loyola University in New Orleans and the George Ohr Museum in Biloxi.

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