Luigi Ontani

Villa Delle Rose

What did Henri Matisse mean when he exhorted his students to “remember that a foot is a bridge”? Did he mean that reality—particularly as mediated by the artistic process—consists of a web of infinite associations and analogies; that things are in constant flux, transgressing the boundaries that define their apparently separate identities; that extremely subtle correspondences link apparently distant pieces of the world? In short, he meant all of these things, for nothing is stable, no meanings are fixed; everything moves as if it were fleeing its own identity. And therefore a foot can be a bridge. The imagination is the motor that powers this perpetual metamorphosis of things and of images. And surely it is this dynamic that animates Luigi Ontani’s work;

This show, installed at the Villa delle Rose, a branch of Bologna’s Galleria Comunale d’Arte Moderna, presented a condensed view of twenty years of Ontani’s development. The artist took possession of the site; on the exterior, at the front entrance, he raised a multicolored banner, an emblem of his fanciful poetics. Inside, he draped silk curtains held up by gilded rods and ring-shaped loops in front of the windows. The image on the curtains was the same as that on the banner: a colorful rocky landscape populated by little figures—half-human, half-vegetable beings—reminiscent of Bosch’s monsters. The decorated environment included numerous works—photographic pieces in which Ontani himself appears in disguise, watercolors, Balinese style wood masks, and small ceramic sculptures—displayed on the walls, next to the floor, or high up near the ceiling. On the upper floor, every room was dedicated to a theme. The “Venetian room” contained blue leaf-shaped ornaments, painted-objects forming an ornately shaped frame, or else mounted inside an actual niche. A marvelous Murano glass chandelier hung from the ceiling, its multicolored arms suggesting tails and claws of some kitsch devil. In the “Mythological room,” ink drawings and watercolors brought to light (a tenuous, suffused light characterized by sky-blue, pink, and yellow vibrations) satyrs and demons, heroes and hermaphrodites. Deliberately childlike and clumsy portraits of boys the artist has met during his frequent travels were exhibited in the “Exotic room.” Ontani photographed himself, dressed as a young man from a high caste, next to a Hindu temple or a sacred cow.

One should never forget that Ontani has adapted his life-style to the model of the dandy. For him, the first work of art is the artist himself, so much so, in fact, that his entire oeuvre might be thought of as one long, complex self-portrait. As in a broken mirror that reflects a multiplicity of images, Ontani’s face appears alongside those of the other “inhabitants” of his delicate watercolors. His posed body is also employed in tableaux vivants from the ’70s, which were inspired by the iconography of painters from the past, from the Carracci to Tintoretto, from Guido Reni to Caravaggio. Kierkegaard’s or Nietzsche’s love of pseudonyms comes to mind—their attempt to conceal their own subjectivities behind numerous masks, almost as proof of the disintegration, the progressive erosion, of the ego. Ontani shuffles the cards of metaphysics to affirm that, in truth, the one is many—to declare that the only possible identity resides in the half-tragic, half-clownlike disguise. Underneath it all, Ontani is an artist who not only understands, but celebrates the authenticity of the False.

Massimo Carboni

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.