New York

Luigi Ontani

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

LUIGI ONTANI IS THAT RARE BIRD OF ART: an unforgettable face, a world-class dandy, and a redoubtable if lovably eccentric presence on the international art-world circuit. In this first US retrospective of his multifaceted output—painting, sculpture, photography, film, video, ceramics, and fabric pieces—we saw the filmed and photographic image of the artist nude and partially draped, alone and accompanied by younger genii figures (usually boys or men of color), many, many times. Yet something more than narcissism emerges from all this Body Art. Ontani's work makes his own self-portrait-as-androgyne central to the myth of all creation: This is narcissism transformed into a powerful—and redemptive—force of nature, a kind of male fecundity.

Ontani came on the scene in late-'60s Bologna with his brand of childlike performance play, and by the early '70s in Rome he was participating fully in the international multimedia celebration of shifting identities through role-playing, ritual, and shadow play. His installation Stanza delle similitudini (Room of similes), 1965-69, which features cutout corrugated cardboard sculptures suggestive of masks, trophies, and miniature cityscapes, looks to be an until-now-overlooked landmark of post-Minimalism. Exhibited off-limits in a sunlit classroom at P.S. 1, the heterogeneous pieces, hanging from the ceiling, lying on the floor, leaning against walls, and often linked bv cardboard chains, suggested fey, performative parallels to the early scatter pieces of Richard Serra and Barry Le Va.

The show was unduly dispersed through several spaces on two floors. Its heart was in the basement, where in a dark, subterranean gallery we could watch video, Super-8, and photographic documentations of the artist's early performances. The black-and-white film footage was especially stirring, with its imagery of Ontani hopping around in a sort of gunnysack dress and sporting an umbrella (Saccombrello, 1970); rolling eggs over his nude body, occasionally letting them break (MontOvolo, 1969); covering himself in dirty roof tiles, which conjured up a weird kind of armor or male many-breastedness (Tetto, 1969). It's always a shock to see how oddly beautiful—how at one with his art—Ontani looks in this early work; like a silent-screen vamp, he's not conventionally handsome or pretty, just graphically vivid. Along with Penelope Tree and Veruschka, he's one of the most pliable belles laides of the post-Minimalist era. I also thought of Joan Jonas and Eleanor Antin when looking at this footage and was interested to read in curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev's catalogue essay that Ontani may well have been inspired by Jonas's 1972 performances in Rome, at L'Attico gallery, where many of Ontani's early performances also occurred.

In the mid-'70s, just as art historians were resuscitating forgotten artists like the Belgian Fernand Khnopff, who obsessively painted sphinxes and androgynes as well as photographed his sister in antique drag, Ontani—in the midst of a profoundly personal rediscovery of androgynous imagery in Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist art—was photographing himself in exalted and Old Masterish poses that seemed to unlock his many doubles. Hand-painted photography—a hybrid nineteenth-century genre if ever there was one—would become one of Ontani's strongest suits, fully developing in the large '90s photographic tondos. Works like Pure'ZZA, 1996, which depicts the artist veiled in white chiffon and holding a pale lily, or CiliElegia, 1999, which shows him covered in cherries, looked as wacko as ever at P.S. 1.

Problems started to occur with P.S. 1's presentation of the '80s paintings and more recent ceramic sculpture. Ontani's paintings are charming but slight. In a 1985 review, I trashed a show of them, perhaps unduly; now the paintings look better to me, seen as part of the larger endeavor Ontani embarked on in the late '60s, a kind of cosmology of the self in which the artist's face, rather than his hand, is the primary tool—a strategy that Cindy Sherman, among others, subsequently employed. As for the ceramic sculpture produced by artisans at Faenza, a famous center for such work since the Renaissance, this was a felicitous direction for Ontani to take—a confirmation of all his ideas on craft, collaboration, and the richness of the Italian tradition—and I remember a sumptuous show of the monumental ceramic herms at Sperone Westwater in 1997. Unfortunately, only two such works were exhibited here. To make matters worse, a new, life-size ceramic sculpture of a baby elephant and two riders, part of the larger installation and performance GaneshamUSA, 1998–2000, was shown in a large, double-height gallery that was again roped off; you couldn't see the texture of the ceramic or its glazing. Thus was the most promising direction in Ontani's recent work made to fizzle at P.S. I. (It's a shame that GaneshamUSA couldn't have been restaged in New York)

Ontani deserves more attention. He has been overshadowed by his compatriot and friend Francesco Clemente, who shares many of his interests—in India, in masks, in metamorphic sexual imagery—but who remains far more exposed, in part because more prolific, than Ontani. Several of Clemente's 1973 drawings are very close to Ontani's early graphic style, and the artists in fact exhibited in Yugoslavia together that year. But whereas Clemente would go on to make Schwach, or weakness, into a grand manner, Ontani is the kernel, the egg, the essence of Schwach. The paradox of his art is that while it can seem fragile and materially dispersed, the artist's persona also seems rock-hard and unsmiling: a dour Northern temperament trapped in an Italian body. In this sense, Ontani's seminal performances may one day even give Joseph Beuys a run for his money. This much is sure: Ontani's place in European art of the late '60s and early '70s is becoming ever more secure.

Brooks Adams is a writer and critic based in New York.