I speak to the artist Luigi Ontani while dining on taglioni pasta and truffles in a restaurant and inn run by a man named Benito, a few kilometres from the town of Grizzana Morandi.
Why are you doing an exhibition this summer in Grizzana Morandi, a small town in the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines?
Because I was born in Vergato in the Reno valley, and the river was the only thing separating us from painter Giorgio Morandi’s house.
Is this a return to your roots?
No. It’s a return and a departure. I have tried to offer a performance art that has its roots in the historic avant-garde – Futurist, Surrealist, and Dada. Therefore, trying to carry out art as an amateur. Actually, it’s the opposite of Morandi’s style of painting. He was the most sublime of the 20th Century painters.
Where your works are on display, there’s the part for the exhibition and the other part is the home and studio of Morandi, is that correct?
Yes. For a few years now, I’ve invited myself to display works in Morandi’s home studio, and paradoxically, I liked being Morandi’s guest in the most ostentatious way and yet there’s a humility in blending in with the humble and simple domestic context of his house. In any case, I also blend in at Capodimonte, which is a majestic place, by placing my works in rooms full of decorative objects. I had a light fixture on display in Capodimonte, and then they didn’t want to take it down. It is the only piece that continues on there in the Napoleon room in Capodimonte.
What does Morandi have to do with all this?
I always have the legendary mythology of the painter Morandi in mind. I actually encountered him in the 1970s when I would go see exhibitions in Bologna.
Did you admire him as an artist?
He’s one of the greatest painters in history because his painting is a sublime synthesis. Not to compete with him, but I created the “nature extramorte” ceramic pieces with the Bottega Gatti in Faenza, trying to fully express all of the qualities of the ceramic-making process. For certain “nature extramorte” pieces, we had to fire them in the kiln six times.
So this is an Ontani show, but “according to Morandi?” This is something many artists have done, isn’t it?
I have always done “according to…” shows, but my “posing” is based on a more mannered interpretation of memory and isn’t a literal reference.
What about in the case of the “nature extramorte” pieces?
I have created the opposite of my fantasy world because there are domestic fantasy items like the container of Ovaltine, the bottles, the little bouquets of flowers, or the talcum powder container. I worked on them as if they were archetypes and prototypes. I looked at them as making little fanciful items.
Is your house “Villino Romamor” just a few kilometres from where you are holding the show?
Yes. It was the cottage outside the walls of the Rocchetta Mattei castle for guests that wanted solitude.
Have you turned it into a home with your sister Tullia, a sort of Ontani house museum?
More than anything it’s a ready-made Romanesque structure. So much so that I imagined the studio as a studio/temple, creating things that don’t go into the exhibitions. I created the decorative artistic elements, giving it its mosaics, shutters, Murano light fixtures, leaded glass, and all of those things that you can’t create in contemporary art. So I was the patron for myself.
Was this a dream of yours?
It is a creative outlet that I have discovered, like in my desire for art…
Your real studio is in Rome, isn’t it?
It’s the studio that was actually Canova’s studio in Via Canova in Rome. I have played with and repudiated history in Canova’s studio. I have played with the memory of Canova.
Morandi’s house and Canova’s studio. Isn’t that a heavy burden for an artist?
For me it’s not a burden, because culture and art are conquests for me. I tend to convey lightness and frivolity, and my ceramics have a certain seductive quality. What I have in common with Canova and Morandi is the oblivion. They are artists that tend to be outside of time.
How would you define your work?
It is an adventure between life and art, often with a touch of irony and frivolity expressed joyfully.
Is this what makes it unique?
I like when the artist has something literary about him as well. I have always liked artists like Savinio, Klossowski, and Alberto Martini because there is a visionary dimension to them.
Do you like the playful aspect of it, as if it’s all a big game?
Being playful is a way to expand the infinite.
Do you in some way feel a connection to Watteau and the “fête galante” style?
I paid homage to Watteau’s “Indifferent” in the Sonnabend gallery in Paris in the 1970s. In that same period, I paid homage to Fra Galgario who was very inspired by the Orient in the 1700s in Italy and the most imaginative.
Is it difficult to be an Italian artist today?
While travelling is my ideal, and though I spent many years between New York and Asia, I chose to return to this former “bel paese” because Italian artists are freer in Italy because nobody, with a few exceptions, even notices.
Why is that?
Perhaps they are so surrounded by this accumulation of art that, I think, there’s a misinterpretation. We live in a reality that is the mirage of art from the past.
Some artists go to the United States or other countries to try to live.
I know that all too well. I lived way too long in New York. I loved it, but these were adventurous diversions or invitations, but I never considered myself a resident. I have lived in New York throughout all of the phases of its various transformations. I lived on Canal Street and then in Soho on Prince Street, and there I met Julian Schnabel who welcomed me right away. There’s a fondness between us. Then I lived in Tribeca before it was this legendary place, and my patron was Paolo Serra di Cassano who gave me a studio. And then I went to the Gramercy Park Hotel and then to Chelsea and so forth.
Who are your friends in New York?
They have ranged over time. In the beginning, there were the artists, musicians, and performers at the end of the 1960s, such as Charlemagne Palestine and Simon Sorti. At the same time, there were those of the Minimalist school like Richard Serra or Carl Andre, but it was Rauschenberg who truly welcomed me after my show at Sonnabend. And then there were other friends like Diego Cortez and Rene Ricard. The people who are most troubled deep down.
Do you like people who are young, troubled, and wild?
Young no. Age is not a consideration. And while I’ve been a vegetarian and a pacifist since birth, I always say that I even like cannibals.
Would you say that your masks are a symbol of this?
They are likenesses because they always represent a synthesis that has various origins.
Where do you make your masks?
The first mask is based on facial features. I have made masks in Thailand, Bali, Mexico, Japan, Sri Lanka, India, and Nicaragua.
Does it seem like art today is as lively as the art market?
No. Art has another kind of vitality. The market is only something extra that goes from the concrete to a game of chance, and it’s synonymous with the New York game.
What about Rome?
There’s no market in Rome. I don’t want to be consumed by the market. Otherwise, I couldn’t continue on in this adventure with objectivity.
Is this why you are having your latest show near Morandi’s house in a little village in the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines?
Yes, to spite the globalised world. But as I always say, “Long live art!”
29th June, 2015