Shout Magazine

Mark Kostabi on Luigi Ontani

When I called writer Charlie Finch from Rome the other day to get my monthly fix of New York art gossip, I was surprised to discover that he was not familiar with Luigi Ontani, whose retrospective exhibition at P.S.1 runs from March 11 through April 22. Although little known to the larger American art public, Luigi Ontani has been an important figure in Italy since the 1970’s.

Luigi Ontani, along with Hannah Wilke and Lucas Samaras, was one of the first great self-photographers. He paved the way for Cindy Sherman, Yasumasa Morimura, Jeff Koons, Francesco Impellizzeri and Chiara.

When he showed at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York in the 1970s, his fans included the then unknown Julian Schnabel, who later became a passionate collector of Ontani’s work. Francesco Clemente often speaks of Ontani’s influence.

Ontani, celebrated for his lightness of touch and unbridled surrealist imagination, works principally in ceramic sculpture, watercolor, hand – colored photography and performance. Throughout much of his work, Ontani himself appears reincarnated as his favorite heroes from mythology, fairytales, history and art history.

Spending half my time in Rome, where Luigi Ontani also lives, I’ve come to know him quite well. I frequently dine with him, along with our friend, the great painter Carla Accardi, at Augustea, where the food is not always the best, but we all go there like moths to the light, in mindless tradition. Usually, conceptual artist Emilio Prini is there also, chain- smoking and getting on my case for misrepresenting arte povera or not introducing people with proper etiquette. Recently I brought my favorite writer, Maggie Estep, to the “artists’ table” at Augustea, when she visited me in Rome. This time Luigi himself got on my case, for not showing Maggie the “Door of Alchemy,” even though it’s very close to my new apartment in Piazza Vittorio. I did however bring Maggie to Luigi’s show at the Roman Aquarium, also near my apartment, where he exhibited “Ganeshamusa,” a life-size ceramic elephant, replete with many delicious details: The elephant’s two front feet are human feet. A ceramic Luigi rides Ganeshamusa and one of his feet morphs into a claw, which clasps an egg. A spinning top balances on his other foot. The colors are out- of- this- world gorgeous. This elephant will trundle over to P.S.1 as part of the retrospective. Luigi will be there too-surely wearing one of his many colorful, custom-tailored suits, which he has made in India. Luigi is always stopped at customs in Rome and forced to pay a duty because, despite his protests, the customs agents inevitably conclude that he is a merchant, who will re-sell the huge quantities of clothes he bought. Luigi is a dandy. And it’s no surprise that he is friendly with New York’s Nigerian dandy, Ike` Ude`, also a self-photographer, who publishes aRUDE magazine from Ludlow Street on the lower east side.

Luigi is also a vegetarian who doesn’t smoke or drink, explaining why at age 58, he could pass for forty. He loves mozzarella di bufala and finishes every meal with fresh pineapple. He is always late to dinner, and his eventual entrance is quietly heralded by Tomasso, the camarriere, who calmly informs us that the maestro is arriving.

March 2001