New York

Luigi Ontani

Jack Tilton Gallery

Luigi Ontani first gained attention in Italy in the ’70s for photographs of himself posed in period costumes. By using the camera to explore the themes of identity and fantasy, he transformed the photograph into a container of fiction. Ontani’s investigation of fantasy, roles, states of innocent desire, and the manifestations of the masculine/feminine identity can be seen as a decisive influence on Francesco Clemente’s development. Although less known in America than Clemente, Ontani’s conceptual work of the ’70s and his evocative, fantasy-charged paintings and watercolors of the ’80s suggest that his evolution has been a significant force in recent Italian art and its move away from arte povera.

Ontani’s work focuses on human impulses of desire before they become differentiated. An artist with a cosmological vision, he does not depict scenes so much as a universe in which all kinds of events can occur. In seven of the oil paintings that were shown here, all from 1987, he has used a tondo format to underscore a vision of a fantastic universe, where, for example, an untroubled Icarus is depicted floating in the middle of the composition as he falls through a deep blue space (The Fall of Icarot in the Valley of Ontani). The tondo allows the artist to project a simultaneous perspective in which various worlds are seamlessly joined. In The Mall of Mamma’s Mountain, a woman’s head becomes a mountain with slopes of long, wavy green tresses and with trees growing out of the top of her head, while a small hermaphroditic creature stands beneath the arch formed by her forearms and hands pressed together in prayer.

Also shown were ten watercolors, also from 1987, that Ontani painted in Mexico and Guatemala, most of them portraits in different kinds of settings. Although derived from direct observation, they are not realist per se but rather in a loose illustrational style, with strange juxtapositions and skewed perspectives. He frequently uses an odd, repeated linear arabesque as a landscape element in both the oils and the watercolors, thus introducing a sort of calligraphic “abstraction” into the work. Typically, Ontani combines images of modern and primitive life, such as the picture of a shoeshine boy seated near an ancient temple, or the bucolic landscape crossed by electrical power lines. To Ontani, the world is a place of innocence that has degenerated into a condition of uneasy coexistence between good and evil. This is exemplified by El Diablito (The little devil), which shows a nude man sitting on a stool with a tiny devil pictured on one of the stool’s supporting elements.

Ontani’s work challenges Italian art’s traditional ties to Christianity, celebrating instead a pagan vision of hedonism, a provocatively bacchanalian Eden. The images and ideas that he presents are unsettling to the viewer who believes in categories and conventional order. He investigates roles to discover the primal realm where desire and the multiple identities of the self are fully integrated. Ontani is more than a bridge between the older and younger generations of Italian artists. In his interest in mythology and pre-Christian tales, from the East as well as the West, he is a groundbreaker whose work has influenced a younger generation.

John Yau