You could say that Luciano Castelli lives life and art as an inseparable whole. Since 1973, the Swiss-born artist has concocted elaborate fantasies, costumed himself for them — dressing as women, animals, pirates — and documented them (and himself) in photographs and film footage that in turn became the basis for his beautiful, often erotic paintings. As you flip through a recently published book that traces Castelli’s career from his youth in Lucerne to his current flamboyant life at the heart of Berlin’s counterculture, compelling images jump from the pages: childish watercolors from 1969, when Castelli, then 17, decided he wanted to be an artist; photographs and jewel-toned paintings of the artist in drag as “Lucille,” a female alter ego not unlike Marcel Duchamp’s “Rose Selavy”; collaborative canvases by Castelli and artist/colleagues Salome and Rainer Fetting, depicting brothels, bodies on meat hooks, and men on trapezes.

The artist himself is so soft-spoken and polite that it’s hard to reconcile his exotic life with his Alfalfa-like countenance. “I’ve always liked to play different roles, but it’s really just a game for me,” maintains Castelli, who traveled to Hollywood and Rome before settling in Berlin in 1978. “I believe we are all made up of male and female aspects, and the combination interests me . . .”

The lascivious female entourage that comprises his most recent series of paintings, currently on view at the Richard Gray Gallery on West Superior Street, involves no overt role-playing on Castelli’s part, but attests to his continued interest in fantasy and erotica. Nude women stare aggressively from the walls — alluring, defiant, brilliantly colored, and exquisitely painted. Castelli’s work is reminiscent of German Expressionists like Emil Nolde and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, but the artist, who is largely self-taught, had no knowledge of these figures until recently. “For a long time, I didn’t look at exhibitions or catalogs because I was afraid I might be influenced,” he says. “Now, I’m beyond that, and I look at other artwork frequently.”

The current body of work represents a departure. “Well, I like to change the themes from series to series so that they don’t all involve roles,” Castelli explains. “The last series was self-portraits from my Chinese fantasy, and before that there was a pirate series. But this is my fantasy harem! All of the portraits are girls I know who posed for me, except for the first picture that greets you when you enter. That is the eunuch, the protector who guards the harem . . .”

On one wall, Sabijn reclines provocatively, exhibiting several tattoos on her right buttock. Nearby, Irene is peeling off her sweater to reveal a black bra. “She was my girlfriend for two years — a very famous prostitute from Zurich who was the best in the whole city,” Castelli says. “She was a very expensive entertainer, not just a whore, since she also acted in movies and posed for photographs . . .” Current girlfriend Birgit Hoffmeister also appears in several of the paintings, including the double portrait Birgit + Manuela, in which she’s painted deep green to Manuela’s tawny brown.

Castelli, whose family expected him to become a sign letterer like his father, has been riding a wave of interest in European art that began around 1980. He has been included in the most important exhibitions of contemporary art — the Venice Biennale. the Museum of Modem Art’s “International Survey,” the Hirshhorn Museum’s “Representation Abroad” — while galleries in New York, Paris, London, Geneva, and Berlin consistently show his work. Since 1982, he’s given up his succession of jobs in bars and shops, supporting himself completely on sales of artwork. Still, “success has two sides,” Castelli cautions. “It can be very pleasant and nice, but also very dangerous. One year, an artist is a star, and the next year he is out of fashion. In Berlin, many of my friends became successful before I did and I was so frustrated. But now, some are having a hard time while I continue to build my career — slowly. One has to be careful, as no one can stay for 20 years at the top.”

As for Castelli’s reception in Chicago, where he’s not been exhibited before, gallery director Paul Gray says that “some people have reacted to Castelli’s work as being garish, or overly erotic, but I think that may reflect our discomfort in dealing with issues of sexuality. There’s no question some of his work is sexually charged, but so are works by such masters as Egon Schiele, to whom Castelli has been compared. And after all, aren’t good works of art always stimulating and thought-provoking?”

New work by Luciano Castelli is on view through May at the Richard Gray Gallery, 301 W. Superior. Hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 11-5. Details at 642-8865.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.