The quintessential Di Stasio experience relies on an expertly balanced combination of ingredients. There’s the elegant Italian food, the old-world hospitality and the luxurious interiors. And, of course, the art. It’s not art that’s quiet or cautious or specifically created to go with its surrounds. Di Stasio art is beautiful, confident and tells a story all on its own.
Di Stasio Citta opened in 2019, with mesmerising video works projected on the raw concrete walls. And in the past year, its namesake Rinaldo “Ronnie” Di Stasio has added two moving-image masterpieces to his ever-growing art collection – and to the walls of Citta.
There’s Homo Suburbiensis, an arresting new video work by contemporary Australian artist Shaun Gladwell, installed prominently to the left of Citta’s sweeping marble bar. Shot in Melbourne during last year’s lockdowns, it’s an in-motion self-portrait of the artist navigating life in one of Melbourne’s most challenging years.
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Then there’s Kamilaroi/Gummaroi/Gamilaraay artist Reko Rennie’s monumental three-channel video installation Initiation_OA_RR, which follows on from his major video work OA_RR. Originally commissioned by Rising Festival, which was cancelled due to one of the year’s lockdowns, the piece is now also showing in its own dedicated space at NGV International. It’s a stirring ode to Rennie’s grandmother that also brings to life his own coming-of-age story, in the western suburbs of Melbourne.
As with Citta, Di Stasio’s just-opened pizzeria seamlessly blurs the line between restaurant and art gallery, courtesy of Di Ritter from Hassell Architects, as well as newly acquired works by Rennie and Gladwell.
At the entrance is an unmissable pair of solid-bronze hands; they sit at eye level on the white wall and are framed by an intense spotlight. Cast from Di Stasio’s hands by sculptor Peter D Cole – and originally installed in 1988 as the inside door handles at Cafe Di Stasio in St Kilda – they’re a kind of amulet, to ward off the evil eye.
In each of its three distinct spaces are vibrant, large-scale paintings by Rennie, a series titled Genesis. Originally presented in 2015 as part of Tarnanthi – a festival of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the Art Gallery of South Australia – Di Stasio’s first encounter with the series was a little more ordinary than you might think. “I was watching The Mix one day on channel two, and for a brief moment I saw these works,” Di Stasio tells Broadsheet. “One after another they looked amazing. And I thought to myself, ‘This is contemporary Aboriginal art’. A week later, I was having dinner with Reko.” And with that, one of Melbourne’s most exciting artist-patron relationships began. “That was six years ago,” Di Stasio says, “and we’ve been close ever since. A week would not go past where we’re not talking to each other.”
In the front Bar Sport, a nod to Di Stasio’s first hospitality job at the Olympic Hotel in Preston, Genesis III features three brusquely painted gold symbols commonly used by Rennie. The crown is a nod to Indigenous sovereignty and Jean-Michel Basquiat, while the diamond is a reference to Gamilaraay patterning. There’s also an outline of the Aboriginal flag. Together, they question the “original royalty” of Australia, and they’re presented against an intense International Klein Blue background.
In the second room, the Ladies’ Lounge, Genesis II features one of Rennie’s trademark statements, “I Was Always Here”; it’s seemingly tagged across stencilled bricks splashed with a rainbow gradient. And in the Caravaggio Room, named for the leading Italian painter, hangs the most evocative piece of them all. With its fiery reds and yellows are illustrations of the arrival of the First Fleet, approaching land on which two Aboriginal men with spears stand armed and ready. Genesis is classic Reko Rennie – proud and uncompromising. They’re two traits the artist shares with Di Stasio.
Looking back on his first purchase of Rennie’s work, Di Stasio enthusiastically admits that, for him, there’s no pre-set formula to buying art. “I don’t know what you call it,” he says. “Luck. Serendipity. A feeling that is very strong in me.” And in true Medici style, Di Stasio also says he deeply cares for Rennie’s future. “It’s a big deal for me. It’s exciting that he’s doing well, and that people are appreciating his work more than ever before. And I’m not someone that ever buys art to make money from it.”
Several recent sculptural pieces by Shaun Gladwell are also displayed in the Caravaggio Room. There’s Themis and I, a blindfolded bust of the Greek goddess of good counsel, and the all-seeing eye of Michelangelo’s David, which sits appropriately on the “eye” of a projector lens. Sitting by their side is Portrait of Pheidippides, a classical Roman bust, and the foot of a sculpture by Indian artist Shilpa Gupta, a subtle reference to Gladwell’s penchant for long-distance running. The works are all contained in a Perspex vitrine, installed on a wall high above, peering down on all who enter the space. They are statements on liberty, and on the importance of culture to everyday life. “More culture, less fear,” as Di Stasio puts it.
For him, art isn’t a fad. It’s a life-long love affair. “The most important thing is to collect what you really love. And in the end, make your own decisions. Purchase what you can't live without.”
Alana Kushnir is the founder of Guest Club, a membership network for art lovers and collectors.