New York

Luigi Otani

Bortolami Gallery

At first glance, Italian artist Luigi Ontani’s recent solo exhibition seemed to fit neatly into the ongoing saga of his career, which has been defined by a flamboyant, if ironic, interweaving of art and life. Here were early photographic tableaux vivants peopled by medieval knights and Olympian gods (scantily clad and expressing a playfully androgynous sexuality), a set of large new lenticular prints in which a fully dressed Ontani wears or plays with masks, and a glittering spiral of ceramic sculptures of the artist’s own ornate Oriental slippers and snakeskin boots. The fancy footwear connected two other works, Electric Throne, 2006–2007, and a figure combining elements of various sculptures from the Galleria Borghese in Rome titled ErmaBorgheseEstetica, 2002–2007.

Yet beneath the familiarly seductive surface bubbled something new: Tempering the flashy self-referentiality of Ontani’s recent work are darker undercurrents of melancholy and unease. The exhibition was titled “AnamorPoses,” a play on anamorphosis, and in the eight lenticular prints, Ontani stages allegorical scenes in which he assumes postures and expressions that literally shift and multiply depending on the viewer’s vantage point (each print incorporates three different images). Moving from the iconic fixity of his original tableaux vivants, Ontani thus now subjects his figures to a doubled animation, one of physical movement, the other of emotion.

Though begun before the 2002 terrorist attack on the island of Bali, Indonesia, where Ontani was working on his masks with local artisans, the title of Maschera Mirata (Targeted Mask), 2001–2004, seems to allude to it and similar events, as does the rageful appearance of the mask itself. The dominant magenta of the pictured garment and mask, from which a tongue of flame emerges, provokes a sense of imminent danger, as does the artist’s shout of anger and despair in one of the two profile poses. But as if in compensation, the artist poses more reflectively in the second profile, set against a backdrop of the Augustean Mausoleum, near the Ara Pacis, the ancient Romans’ Temple of Peace. Ontani seems to be invoking antique ritual as a kind of psychic defense against the anxieties of the here and now.

In Electric Throne, a ceramic sculpture accompanied by a lenticular print of the same title and date in which Ontani appears seated as if awaiting execution, the artist voices his abhorrence of capital punishment, his silent scream signaling a move beyond the dandyish attitudes of the past few years. Moreover, while packed with references to the artist’s body (the seat is modeled on his buttocks, the chair leg and arm on his foot and hand, the backrest on his stomach and navel), the throne also serves to indicate that each of us is seated in our own vehicle of death, our marvelous yet vulnerable body. The artist’s anguished cry is thus not only one of political and social protest but also one of fear in the face of physical frailty.

Juxtaposed with Ontani’s recent works were a selection of photographs made in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, of which the most significant is perhaps Bacchino (Bacchus), 1970. In this photo, the young artist reclines naked on a small pink sofa, his face covered with grapes, his genitals hidden by his raised right leg, in what resembles a supine dance step. Here, Ontani achieves maximum significance with a minimum of materials, evoking the power of myth with next to nothing. His more technologically and thematically complex recent work demonstrates an ever-deeper immersion in culture, mythology, and tradition but shares the same final aim: a journey into the self.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.