New York

Luigi Ontani

As if to make up for his seven-year absence from the New York scene, Luigi Ontani mounted a cram course in his special brand of artistic indulgence: an overwhelming array of more than 60 mostly recent works (though the show included some pieces dating back to the ’70s), ranging from hand-colored photographs to paintings, masks, and ceramic sculptures. The show could be considered a miniretrospective, yet for all its variety, it was so concentrated as to banish any thought of approaching the work in terms of chronological development. As Rome is the Eternal City, this is the Eternal Ontani.

An American eye, unaccustomed to Ontani’s knowing mix of brilliance and kitsch, might mistake him for an amiable eccentric. In fact, he is a central figure in recent Italian art—the missing link, one might say, between Alighiero e Boetti and Francesco Clemente; that is, between arte povera and the best of the transavant-garde. Here, exoticism is the sign for the interpenetration of foreign and parochial mythologies (more specifically of Asian and Italian cultures); the persona of the artist acts as the point of contact between the historical and the transitory, with humor underlining the incommensurability of these perspectives.

The differences between Boetti, Ontani, and Clemente include their relative positions in relation to the historical shift in prestige away from “conceptual” genres toward “painting.” Ontani’s paintings represent the portion of his work whose charm is more fragile, whereas his photographs—which combine the immediacy of his performances and the tenderness of his watercolor retouching—are the crux of his style. In them he is always himself, yet always mythic, whether he becomes the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus (Lapsus Lupus, 1993), the Gorgon Medusa (MadeUSA, 1993), or the Hindu god Shiva (W Shiva, 1977).

Here, self-aggrandizing gravitas and self-deprecatory wit complement each other. At a somewhat greater distance from self-representation stand Ontani’s ceramic sculptures. In some of the pieces from the series “Tribù Tabù,” 1994, a group of small works in this medium, the artist uses himself as the model in his depictions of famous historical figures, attesting to his penchant for awful puns as inspiration for visually witty or poetic juxtapositions: Virgil bears an oversized lily (Virgilio/giglio); Marco Polo rides mounted on a great chicken (Marco Polo/pollo). Figurines representing Kama Sutra positions are interspersed among these pieces. Two life-size ceramic sculptures are homages to Italy as a whole and to Naples in particular: in Panontale, 1993–94, an upside-down Italian boot, decorated within dozens of allegorical figures representing places, historical personages, and abstract characteristics, upholds the globe; La Pulce di Pulcinella, 1993, represents the commedia dell’arte character conveyed across a sea of blue silk by a sort of hybrid of the Tower of Babel and Noah’s Ark.

Ontani’s “self-portraits” are deeply narcissistic but paradoxically generous. They confirm the proposition of another great interpreter of others: Glenn Gould’s notion that “by pursuing the most narcissistic relations to artistic satisfaction one can best fulfill the fundamental obligation of the artist of giving satisfaction to others.”

Barry Schwabsky