It has been over three decades since restaurateur Rinaldo “Ronnie” Di Stasio and gallery owner Anna Schwartz first crossed paths. “[It was] at Rosati in Flinders Lane in 1985 â, says Schwartz Large format.
It was the opening year of Rosati, Di Stasio’s first restaurant – an ambitious 500-seat – which was one of the first companies to draw Melbourne’s attention to its lanes.
At the same time, Schwartz was running his first gallery, United Artists, with a group of artist friends in St Kilda. It was an area she knew well. âMy grandparents had lived in Fitzroy Street, St Kilda,â she says. “My aunt was dating [spaghetti bar] Leo’sâ¦ and Ronnie knew her. A number of different paths have actually brought us closer together.
“[Schwartz] was part of true St Kilda bohemianism, âadds Di Stasio.
But by the end of the 1980s the couple had changed suburbs – Schwartz moving to Flinders Lane to open City Gallery and Di Stasio moving to Fitzroy Street to open Di Stasio cafe.
This is where Di Stasio first exhibited an art acquisition in one of his restaurants – a fiery orange work by Jenny Watson, On a Horse’s Tail (1988). âIt’s still one of my favorite pieces,â he recalls. And of course, he had acquired it from Schwartz.
There is a strong bond between them, a friendship cultivated over many years of gallery openings, extravagant dinners and artistic trips to Venice. For Di Stasio, âWhat I liked about Anna was that there was a freedom to have a look and feel – and I chose the job. [Collecting art] gives me great pleasure and it’s a way of life I can’t live without. For Schwartz, “It’s a pleasure when someone like Ronnie acquires works for his own collection but can display them in his restaurants, so that they are available to the public.”
This happy marriage of private collection and public enjoyment is something Di Stasio brought up again at Citta, which opened in 2019, mixing high art with great drama and haute cuisine. In particular, spellbinding video works are projected onto the raw concrete walls. âThere is great engagement with the works on display and they elicit a response from everyone who comes here,â says Di Stasio. âSome people don’t know what to think about it, others find it insulting. But I love this reaction. His answer ? “It’s up to you to interpret it.”
Its most recent acquisition, Homo Suburbians (2020), is a striking video performance by contemporary Australian artist Shaun Gladwell. Shot in Melbourne during last year’s closures, this is a moving self-portrait of the artist as he navigates life through one of our most difficult years to date. And it’s now set up prominently to the left of Citta’s large marble bar.
It was created exactly 20 years after Gladwell’s foundational video work, Storm Sequence (2000), for which he is arguably the best known. There, the artist skates elegantly – and in slow motion – in front of a stormy seascape. But in this new job, he tackles another type of physical pursuit: long distance running. According to Schwartz, âIt is, among many other themes, endurance as a metaphor. ”
Gladwell also examines other ordinary and everyday actions – from eating to dancing and even computing. The voiceover and cinematic framing are used to present pseudo-scientific observations, while the absurdity of the actions underscores the disconnection.
The video’s sense of humor is particularly poignant. In one instance, the artist appears to be eating a meal of McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish (subtly reminiscent of the 1982 film by Danish filmmaker JÃ¸rgen Leth 66 scenes from America, which depicts Andy Warhol eating a Burger King Whopper). Schwartz considers it “an example of a work that really interests everyone, from the casual passerby to the art theorist”.
For Di Stasio, however, it’s âthe kind of thing that gave me the courage to come out of lockdown and get up right away. So to me that represents freedom.
by Shaun Gladwell Homo Suburbians is now playing at Di Stasio Citta.
Alana Kushnir is the founder of Guest Work Agency, a conservation practice and a legal and advisory firm for artists, collectors, commercial galleries and arts organizations.