Luigi Ontani, GaneshDafne gaio, Giove et Ganimede, Gallo eAlloro, col gorilla goloso dell’uovo d’oro, 2003; NapoleonCentaurOntano, 2003; and Mille GandhArti Auroborambivolante, 2003. Installation view, S.M.A.K., Ghent, 2003.

Luigi Ontani, GaneshDafne gaio, Giove et Ganimede, Gallo eAlloro, col gorilla goloso dell’uovo d’oro, 2003; NapoleonCentaurOntano, 2003; and Mille GandhArti Auroborambivolante, 2003. Installation view, S.M.A.K., Ghent, 2003.

Luigi Ontani

“Genthara,” a vast retrospective of Luigi Ontani’s work comprising hundreds of photographs, paintings, drawings, sculptures, and videos, was pointedly flanked on the one hand by a selection of Italian art from the smak’s collection, focusing on a superb group of pieces from the era of arte povera, and on the other by a group show of young Italian artists punningly titled “Forse Italia” (“Maybe Italy,” but playing on the name of Silvio Berlusconi’s political party, Forza Italia, i.e., “Go Italy”). The implication being, of course, that the protean Ontani is a bridge between the generations. This is correct as far as it goes—for instance, he joins the mythopoeic gravitas of the older artists with the playfulness and sometime self-referentiality of the rising generation. Yet the ferment stirred by Italian artists in the ’60s—in distinction from immediate precursors like Fontana, Burri, and Manzoni—was based on a profound questioning of the linear sense of history that must underlie any such chronological narrative. Instead, Italian artists wondered whether it might not be the case that, as Luciano Fabro put it in the title of a work shown here, “every order is contemporaneous with every other order” (Ogni ordine è contemporaneo d’ogni altro ordine, 1972–73). Fabro’s title refers specifically to the architectural orders—Doric, Ionic, and so on—but implicitly to any cultural structure, and in different ways Merz, Paolini, Kounellis, and Zorio all dwelled on similar considerations. After all, the quintessential problem of the Italian artist is what the theorist of literary influence Harold Bloom called “belatedness”: Born at the grand intersection of the Christian culture of the Middle East and the classical, pagan culture of Greece, the Italian artist feels at his back not only the great pictorial history that stretches from the Middle Ages to the Rococo but something close to the whole imaginative heritage of the West. This tends to give him a sense of being at once elect and redundant. So the idea of a “pan-contemporaneity” of cultural forms might be something of an evasion of the anxiety of influence but still an extraordinarily productive and liberating one, and no one has pushed its implications more single-mindedly than Ontani.

The paradigm for all of Ontani’s work since 1969 has been the tableau vivant, the term the artist prefers for his thirty or so performances between then and 1989, although these were not the simple silent and motionless enactment of a picture that would literally be denoted by the phrase. The essence of the tableau vivant is amateurism. It is an art form for nonprofessionals (though Ontani has made a profession of it): a parlor entertainment, a homemade theater. As René Ricard writes in the exhibition catalogue, Ontani’s “love of costume and disguise is infantile. And there is a familial collusion: his sister still makes his clothes.” But to speak of disguise is to go too far: The masquerade is meant to be seen through. Not only in his photographs but in his ceramic sculptures and in almost all the other manifestations of Ontani’s mythographic explorations (the paintings constitute a partial exception), if one were somehow to not recognize the artist’s own face in the work, its whole point would be missed; he never disappears into the roles he plays, à la Cindy Sherman. His work is a “journey into identity,” as he once put it, and not away from it. Although Narcissus is just one among the many mythic figures whom Ontani has portrayed, he is the one whose impersonation is least an impersonation, the alter ego requiring the least alteration.

Still, Ontani’s work is an encounter with a legion of personae, above all Christian saints and gods of the Greek, Roman, and Hindu pantheons, but also artists (Raphael, de Chirico, Pollock) and literary figures (Dante)—as long as they’ve been elevated by posterity to legendary status. Who, having once seen Ontani’s photographic portrayal of Leda being ravished by the swan in one of the 24 Ore (24 Hours), 1975, or as the mother wolf (a transformation effected by just a skin draped over the crouching artist’s back) preparing to give suck to a multiracial Romulus and Remus in Lapsus Lupus, 1992, could forget them? But for all the vivid images it contains, this is an oeuvre in which the multiplicity of the ensemble takes precedence over the singularity of its instances. One thinks perhaps of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous science-fiction story “The Nine Billion Names of God,” in which the exhaustive listing of the deity’s appellations leads to the extinction of the phenomenal world. Is Ontani attempting to be exhaustive in his excavation of the immortal realm of fable, or is he trying to prove its inexhaustibility? A clue may be found in his special affinity for roles that embody duality and mirroring—not only Narcissus but also the hermaphrodite and the androgyne—and for a sculptural form that does the same, the herm that faces both forward and backward. A duality produces a self-enclosed and complete structure, as Aristophanes taught in Plato’s Symposium: The importance of such structures for Ontani suggests that his desire is to exhaust the mythic content of the world, to end it in total pan-contemporaneity. His humor may reflect contentment in his desire’s impossibility.

Barry Schwabsky is a London-based critic and a frequent contributor to Artforum.