New York

Luigi Ontani

When Bolognese artist Luigi Ontani first began to exhibit, in 1970, his work must have seemed radically surprising in that it was nakedly self-referential. This would have been rare in much cutting-edge ’60s art, with its address of formal, material, and conceptual issues or else, in Pop and its kin, of public culture; and if the painting most prominent in the late ’40s and 50s was often read as expressing or exploring self, it was thought to do so rather impersonally, in a philosophical, existential, literally abstract way. (Even the work of an artist like Jasper Johns, arguably full of self-revelatory clues, is notorious for coding and disguising them.) Ontani, on the other hand, collapses his production into his own persona. In fact, he has described his work as “the adventure I live as a person of art,” and the most obvious device binding his diverse oeuvre (objects of many kinds, hand-colored photographs, performances) is his endless repetition of the image of his own face—that and an interest in history and myth, for Ontani the sources of stories and characters into or onto which he can insert or superimpose himself. Who knew, in 1970, how strong such themes would later become in art, flowering in the ’80s and still developing in the ’90s (one thinks, for example, of the photographs of Yasumasa Morimura). In hindsight perhaps an almost predictable return of the repressed, Ontani’s concerns were nevertheless prescient and ahead of their time.

The recent exhibition mostly comprised a group of majolica herms, along with afew smaller freestanding and wall pieces in the same medium, and four large photographs. As in the past, the works are all in some sense self-portraits, showing the artist consecutively as Plato, William Tell, Gertrude Stein, Jackson Pollock, and a list of others; in the photographs he appears as allegories of Fortune, Oblivion, Melancholy, and Purity. The forms of the majolica works are further determined by a series of variously entertaining puns and wordplays, so that, for example, the herm called POLLOck, 1996, has two protruding feet—a human, drip-splattered one and a chicken claw, since pollo is “chicken” in Italian. In a tondo from 1995, Ontanias–Pontius Pilate appears hairless and framed by a ring of tomatoes, for “Pilato,” Pilate’s Italian name, is easily transformed into both pelato and pelati, “bald” and “tomatoes,” respectively. These potteries are enlivened by other details—the shaft of the POLLOck herm becomes Jackson’s familiar jeans and black T-shirt, for example, and above Ontani’s face he wears a Jasper Johnsian coffee can of paintbrushes as a hat—as well as by their deep and vibrant color.

A pleasant half hour can be spent deciphering these visual and verbal drolleries, but once they’re unraveled, that’s kind of that; their rewards are relatively short-lived. The idea of basing sculptural form on such purposefully playful rationales, however, has its own interest, and here another focus of Ontani’s must enter: sexuality, and the strong homoerotic streak his art has always had. In the present work, phallic projections often break the herms’ slick skins—as, indeed, they would have in classical Greece, where these columnar shafts, topped by the head of Hermes (a fertility god as well as the patron of communication; in the past, Ontani has photographed himself as Hermes), featured male genitalia on their fronts. The herm itself is a male symbol, then, but Ontani’s incessant self-regard, his pose of vanity, his role-playing, his identification with male, female, and hermaphroditic figures from history and fable, the wit and the careful lightness of his schemes for inventing form, perhaps even his objects’ shallow surface brilliance—all this has a Wildean je ne sais quoi quite at odds with the conventional boy self-image, not to mention a lot of the art that would have been current when Ontani was growing up. It was, in other words, once quite subversive, and it may remain discomfiting to some—I suspect that some of those who claim to be repelled by Ontani’s narcissism are actually responding squeamishly to his work’s erotic argument. One would hope not to make that mistake, and if I say that these effects seem to me something of a reflexive and familiar trope at this point, I would add that the assertion of a particular identity can continue to be nourishing for an artist and his audience even when those it provokes or challenges, one hopes, are shrinking in number.

David Frankel