Until he was usurped and updated by the ubiquitous Matthew Barney, the now neglected Luigi Ontani was the cover boy for RoseLee Goldberg’s book Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present (1988). Historically and temperamentally situated between the asexual Arte Povera of the late 1960s and the testosterone-infested Transavanguardia of the following decade, Ontani now cuts a singular, and sometimes solitary, figure on the contemporary Italian art scene. Despite important performances and exhibitions in Italy and America during the 1970s, ranging from major galleries such as Galleria Sperone in Milan to Sonnabend in New York, and more recently a major retrospective at P.S.1 in New York in 2001, Ontani’s eccentricity and singularity belie the influence he has had on many other artists. His practice predicted and prefigured that of such 1980s alumni as Cindy Sherman and Jeff Koons, and his impact can still be felt in works by Jeff Wall, Clegg and Guttmann and Yasumasa Morimura, to name but a few.
The range of Ontani’s oeuvre, encompassing painting, photography, performances, tableaux vivants and ceramics, was well represented at this exhibition, which covered work from the beginning of his career in the early 1970s to the present. Employing the constant of his own body, modulated by a multitude of personae created from the masquerade of costumes and masks, Ontani refers to folklore, fairy tales, mythology, art and history. Memory is his main muse, whether the individual one of childhood or collective cultural history, while the title of the exhibition, Eros dei Eroi (Eros of the Heroes), posited heroism and Eros as inextricably linked. Ontani has assembled an eclectic array of historical and mythological figures to explore this theme, ranging from a ceramic sculpture of the Roman emperor Hadrian alongside his lover Antinous, to photographs of the artist posing as Garibaldi, Napoleon and Shivaji, the war god of western India. These works, placed between an Italian nationalism (personified by the specifically Roman heroes of the poets Belli and Trilussa) and a multicultural internationalism drawing from Thai gods and Indian mythology, refer obliquely to current political unrest through recourse to the past.
Art history is raided in works such as Ecce Homo, d’après Guido Reni (Behold the Man, after Guido Reni), from 1970–2002, where a photograph of Ontani standing in for Reni’s infamously camp Christ has been translated into ceramic, surrounded by a gilt frame complete with a crown of thorns. In MajyaGoya vestito – MajyaGoya desnudo (MajyaGoya Dressed – MajyaGoya Naked, 1970–2002) he employs a lenticular format (the same as the cheesy Catholic souvenirs that enable Christ ‘miraculously’ to transform into the Virgin Mary), so that Ontani, sprawled on a couch in the manner of Francisco de Goya’s Maya, can be dressed or denuded at the turn of a head. The strongest and strangest series of works on display was undoubtedly a group of photographs that Ontani executed in Delhi in 2000. LaocoOntaniE sees him restaging the famous classical sculpture of the Laocoön, assisted by two young boys, in a series of sepia photographs that have been hand-painted, imparting to them the patina of age. East and West, pagan and Christian, Classical and contemporary, collide in these and other works from this series, which, aside from their erudition, also have an unsettling and darkly humorous impact that could only be described as fauxmo-erotic.
Encountered now, the kitsch aspect of Ontani’s art needs to be counterbalanced by an understanding of its historical imperatives. Creating baroque works from gold during the ‘years of lead’ in Italy, by embracing desire, pleasure and sensuality, his dandyism was diametrically opposed to the dour seriousness of a failing left wing. Like that of his contemporary in France the equally overlooked Michel Journiac, Ontani’s art developed alongside the burgeoning Feminist and Gay rights movements, which challenged the complacency of the traditional left, but his work veered away from the more masochistic and melodramatic aspects of much contemporaneous (and even now contemporary) Performance art. The body for Ontani was and is a thing of beauty, to be celebrated and employed for pleasure rather than punishment or catharsis. Desire has always occupied an uneasy place in contemporary Italian art, perhaps problematized by the conflicting, but equally restrictive, twin influences of communism and Catholicism. This has done much to relegate Ontani’s works to the periphery, but recent theoretical texts such as Mario Perniola’s The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic (2000), which like a sort of horny Maurice Merleau-Ponty places phenomenology and desire at the centre of Western philosophy, could provide a rereading of an artist who deliberately avoids the earnest seriousness of many of his contemporaries but is worthy of more careful consideration.