New York

Luigi Ontani

Sonnabend Gallery

There is a cliché about contemporary Italian art being hopelessly overwhelmed by the living presence of the nation’s artistic past. Like most clichés, this catches the sense if not the facts; at any rate it is a question that particularly concerns Italians, and a number of artists are addressing their heritage directly. Luigi Ontani, a young Roman artist who had his first one-man show in New York recently, seems to be working in just that area.

Preceding him to this country was a little book, representative of his performances and tableaux, in which the artist re-creates Renaissance mythological imagery and the endless iconographic motifs of Italian art by playing the parts of saints and other characters. This magnificent booklet alone created a small, devoted, and chic group of fans. The reason is obvious: transformations, even if mythological, are camp.

To be sure, Ontani’s camp is delicate, totally rarefied in beauty and almost angelically innocent, but not having much other reference of this nature reaching here from Italy, we accept it as the velvet-lined esoterica it is. What is specific to Ontani’s use of cultural clichés is that they are located in the marginal generalities where differing cultures meet; I cannot attest to their position in an Italian metaphysics, but they fit right into the “Italian” slot in mine.

The work is a kind of nationalist, historical Pop with a conceptual updating, since Ontani exhibits with one of the most ephemeral of media, the slide projection. The form has quite a few practitioners in Europe, but none exhibits quite such bravura, care and complexity as Ontani. I saw Ontani, with a vision that could be paralleled only by a rococo artist gone haywire in the middle of a large-scale interior commission, take over an octagonal church with a gigantic cupola in Amsterdam, projecting images on the varied surfaces with an unbelievable variety in size, distance, amplification and distortion. Not that the resulting atmosphere was frantic; Ontani’s is a shy interior with a totally precise contour. The Narcissus in Ontani is the introvert who is totally capable of amusing himself by himself; the magic of the work is that it remains always so carefully contained within its contours, folding back into its own introspection. Hence the appeal of his crystal ball images.

Scattered around the walls, corners, anterooms, elevator and between windows at Sonnebend were projected images of Mercury, monsters, a flying carpet, the four seasons, Leda and the swan, and testaments, each inhabited by the artist in the role of the protagonist. The sizes and positioning of the images reflect a definite hierarchy of privileged motifs. But basically this section of the show is a sampling of concerns, a waiting-room in which to prepare for the tableau vivant taking place in the main room of the gallery.

Looking in from the roped-off entrance we see a checkerboard Recaissance floor projected onto the gallery floor, reaching with elongated distortion to the wall facing us. On this wall is a projection of a Renaissance landscape of the type we are so familiar with—the vista seen through a window. Flanking this image is the real-life artist, clothed in nothing but the projection of a Renaissance figure on his body, a real red cap, and toy gun in his hand. His feet fall in a shadow that gives the illusion of shoes. The quiet, exacting beauty of this takes us beyond a tableau vivant; it becomes a natura morta about the original work it recalls.

The piece is full of reverberations: the Italian imagery the Italian artist chooses to recreate is familiar to New York viewers through Cornell! The tableau vivant can be seen as an homage to Cornell’s multitude of Medici Princes. The affinities between these two artists makes perfect sense, even to a formal degree. Ontani’s projected installations are, in effect, collages, dreamy Kodachrome blow-ups of Cornell’s precious boxes.

The thoughtful layering of iconographies, meticulous orchestration of imagery and the manifest presence of a very “cultured” look take me back to Jannis Kounellis’ tableau vivant, which occupied the same room a year or so ago, but instead of the heavily breathing enigma, we have now Narcissus. The power of myth generated by the Greek artist is mere imagery with Ontani. The practically brutal strength of the metaphysics present in Kounellis’s piece here becomes all loveliness, care, and delight in borrowed harmonies.

Ontani’s postured identification of the very persona of the artist with the myth disguises neither him nor the myth. It is a symbiosis, which opposes the general and the particular. One of the primary beauties of Ontani’s work is how he subverts the obvious through the manner in which he recalls it, and how he contextualizes blatant clichés into gentle subtleties. Like a child moved by the exotica of myth and fables, he walks through mythology with lighthearted pleasure.

—Edit DeAk