Luigi Ontani has only just moved into his studio near the Piazza del Popolo in Rome, but already it bears the mark of this inimitable artist, the doorbell highlighted by a tiny portrait of himself as Pinocchio. Called maestro by those who know and revere him, Ontani is an Italian treasure and is unmistakable, dressed today, as always, in a three-piece silk suit, this time the colour of spring greens.
Ontani, born in 1943 in a small town near Bologna, began his artistic career in Rome in 1970. The studio we are in belonged to Canova, the famous sculptor. Ontani recalls that he was walking in the area he now considers home and saw "affittasi" (for rent) in the window of the building. He got on the phone and the building was his by the end of the day. "I was lucky," he says, "as only artists could apply – no restaurants or pizza houses, [he shudders] no bars, or fashion houses."
At present he lives nearby, overlooking the Piazza del Popolo, but he will soon move above the studio: "I don't like to separate my life from my art." The rooms are high and vaulted with wonderful light. He has painted the concrete floor mauve, his favorite colour, and one that recurs often in both his work and dress.
He was – and is still – beautiful, and uses himself, as do so many contemporary artists, as the subject of his art. Many feature him posed as mythical characters, often nude. "My photographs are not documents, not simulacra, but are imaginary. There are others that are documenting, but not me." Shown in Paris and New York, most notably in The Kitchen in the early 1970s, his work clearly inspired the work of Cindy Sherman, among others. Otani distinguishes his art works from his performances saying, "I am naked, like a sculpture; there is no movement. It is not a document, it is a pose."
When I ask about the work he has in the current show at Tate Modern, he replies: "They have chosen two works: one of me as Shiva and one as St Sebastian." That makes sense as it shows the span of his sources of iconography. "They have chosen small works," he says, and when I query the wisdom of this, as we are surrounded by man-sized art works, he shrugs, "It is archaeological, a discovery for them." Holding up his hands he illustrates the scale.
Nearby hangs a photograph of a young naked Ontani perched on an oriental carpet in front of a quasi-psychedelic sun. "That was my magic carpet. I took it everywhere – it was the size of a postcard."
"What?" I exclaim. "Yes, I took photographs of myself posing – I always did my own photography – and then I hung it in front of the carpet on a string and manipulated it all."
Luigi Ontani is part of A Bigger Splash: Painting After Performance, Tate Modern, London SE1 (020 7887 8888) to 1 April