Luigi Ontani

A pioneer of the forms of expression bound up with the body and performance, Luigi Ontani (Vergato, 1943) has consistently pursued a narcissistically self-representative strategy for over forty years, leading him to identify his image with his composite research, making it the direct emanation of all the stories it generates and potentially attributable to it, in a destabilizing synthesis between art and life unique on the contemporary art scene. Ontani’s work oscillates between the practice of art as interpretational transgression and emphatically aestheticized representation, which emerges from the hybridization of motifs and heterogeneous languages, expressed through a variety of media that combine past and present, personal memories and universal quotations, complexity of myth and popular lore, Oriental culture and iconography and Western art history, sacred and profane.

Varied stimuli converge in seductive and playful imagery, indulging in a skillful and amused mastery of decorative expression. A daring quick-change artist, Ontani thus becomes the protagonist, through continuous transformations and combinations, of a potentially infinite set of narratives with a vertiginous interplay of cross-references and mirrorings. An uninhibitedly combinatorial attitude imposes subtle variations and figural displacements on events and characters, affecting even the titles of his works, with their ambiguous and polyvalent meanings, from his early watercolored photographs in the 1970s to the subsequent tableaux vivants and the more recent lenticular blow-ups: Déjeuner sur l’art (1969), NarcisOnfalONANallaSORGENTEdelNIENTE (1970), Alberi l’ontani (1975), San Luca vergineo pittore guercino (1975), Tulipano nell’ANO (1980), LedaSwanSiaM (1993), Dante Grillo Poliglotta (1998-2000), CignoLedoDIOscuri (2007), are just some of Ontani’s many reincarnations.

Gladioli tentazioni (“Glads Temptations,” 1972) was one of the earliest tableaux vivants to be produced by the artist, a life-size photographic print. Those were the years when Ontani began his metaphorical journey into all possible identities, principally exploring a series of references dear to mythology and art history, such as the famous works after Guido Reni (Saint Sebastian, Hippomenes, St. John). The title of the work in the collection plays on the symbolism related of the gladiolus flower, its name derived from the Latin gladiolum, meaning “small sword”, owing to the form of its slender, elongated leaves, resembling the weapon used by the Roman legionnaires: the gladius.
Probably because of its etymology, giving gladioli flowers is tantamount to declaring one has been pierced, although ambivalently: wounded or pierced through the heart by an irrepressible infatuation. Here the artist seems to allude ironically to the latter sense, emerging from the darkness, in frozen counterpointing, with the pudenda concealed by a bunch of gladioli, ready to be wielded, to reveal the artist, finally, in all his heroic nudity.

Ontani has a long association with the city of Naples, dating back to his first exhibition at the Modern Art Agency, Pulcinella (1974). The Neapolitan figure is again the protagonist of Spulcinellando, Sguazzando, Scugnizzando (2003), a mosaic that the artist created for the Materdei station in Naples. In more recent years, a number of works, mostly ceramic sculptures, the ibridoli, created a dialogue with the evocative spaces of the historic premises of the Museo Nazionale of Capodimonte, CapoDioMonte (2010), while in 2013 the artist presented his work in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples.

EV