Luigi Ontani

Mario Diacono Gallery

Luigi Ontani’s most recent work abandons the body as a direct language in favor of a more “pictorial” dimension. In past self-portraits, he has employed the body as a linguistic means, photographing it in poses inspired by mass-media personalities, comic strips (“Superman”), literary works (Don Juan), or figures from classical painting. His interest in the past was conveyed through a filter of historical and literary references; the classical figures he invoked furnished the interpretive key to his stagings of life as art, and, conversely, of art as the acme of life. His staging has always been extremely careful and precise; at the core of his images, there is nothing superfluous. The kitsch in which his images have often appeared bathed, like a sugar coating, is a cultural homage offered up to the observer as a treat, an extra.

Now, Ontani no longer uses the body as an expressive, and at the same time symbolic, sign; rather, he alludes to it. He still deals with the past, using images taken from art history, but he also draws on material from his own life and experiences. In the pantheon of figures to whom he referred in this show, the place of honor was reserved for Brancusi and Lucio Fontana. Colonna senza fine (“Endless Column”) is a painted photograph of Ontani’s feet, crisscrossed one over the other in a manner that suggests the buildup of elements seen in Brancusi’s sculpture. Montovolo a gilded wooden sculpture the upper part of which is in the shape of the mountain where Ontani was born, is a reproduction of one of Fontana’s “spatial concepts.”

Along the same lines is Autoritratto in cartamodelli dorati (“Self-Portrait as Golden Patterns”), which covered an entire wall of the gallery. 35 pieces of white paper were hung on the wall with straight pins; they are pieces of actual patterns for a suit, shirt, tie, and shoes. Each piece is outlined in gold and contains a number of figures delineated with a simple, light touch. The marks are intentionally awkward, as if to indicate that the figures represented are archetypes (both formal and linguistic), and therefore elementary rather than refined. The images comprise an iconographic repertory from diverse cultures and epochs, from Egyptian hieroglyphics to Romanesque decoration, from symbolic Indian forms to classical elements in European paintings. “Self-Portrait” can be seen, therefore, as cultural autobiography, as an homage to the patrimony of icons acquired by the artist over the course of the years; it is no longer the body that assumes the value of linguistic sign, but its absence, evoked through the suit. The absence of the body is, in fact, suggested by the presence of the clothing, which symbolically alludes to that which remains hidden from view.

Ontani, however, does not renounce self-reflection: in the show, two small painted photographs of his face, framed in palettes, were hung on opposite walls of the room. The image, then, was mirrored in itself; the artist mirrored himself and reflected upon himself. This underlines one of Ontani’s primary concerns—the artist as “painter,” with the tools of his trade, the palette and brushes.

But, one cannot avoid noticing in this work a dichotomy between the idea of painting as a sublime language or activity and the pictorial signs used by Ontani in “Self-Portrait.” The near-infantile clumsiness of his execution seems to speak of a limitation, an incapacity to paint, or perhaps the uselessness of painting; it is as though the myth of the painter has no place in today’s world other than one of irony, or self-irony.

Ida Panicelli