It’s been more than three decades since restaurateur Rinaldo “Ronnie” Di Stasio and gallerist Anna Schwartz first crossed paths. “[It was] at Rosati in Flinders Lane in 1985,” Schwartz tells Broadsheet.

That was the opening year for Rosati, Di Stasio’s first restaurant – an ambitious 500-seater – which was one of the first ventures to turn Melbourne’s attention to its laneways.

At the same time Schwartz was running her first gallery, United Artists, with a group of artist friends in St Kilda. It was an area she knew well. “My grandparents had lived in Fitzroy Street, St Kilda,” she says. “My aunt used to frequent [spaghetti bar] Leo’s … and Ronnie knew her. A number of different paths actually brought us together.”

“[Schwartz] was part of the real bohemian St Kilda,” Di Stasio adds.

But by the late ’80s the pair had swapped suburbs – with Schwartz relocating to Flinders Lane to open City Gallery and Di Stasio moving to Fitzroy Street to open Cafe Di Stasio.

It was there Di Stasio first exhibited an art acquisition at one of his restaurants – a fiery orange work by Jenny Watson, On the Tail of a Horse (1988). “It’s still one of my favourite pieces,” he reminisces. And naturally, he had acquired it from Schwartz.

There’s a strong bond between them, a friendship cultivated over many years of gallery openings, extravagant dinners and art trips to Venice. For Di Stasio, “What I liked about Anna was there was a freedom to have a look and feel – and I chose the work. [Collecting art] gives me great pleasure, and it’s a way of life I can’t be without.” For Schwartz, “It’s a pleasure when somebody like Ronnie acquires works for his own collection but is able to display them in his restaurants, so that they are available for the public to see.”

That happy marriage of private collecting and public enjoyment is something Di Stasio has elevated even further at Citta, which opened in 2019, blending high art with high drama and high cuisine. Notably, mesmerising video works are projected on the raw concrete walls. “There’s a great engagement with the works displayed, and they invoke a response from everyone who comes here,” Di Stasio says. “Some people are unsure of what to make of it, others find it insulting. But I love that reaction.” His response? “It’s up to you to interpret it.”

His most recent acquisition, Homo Suburbiensis (2020), is an arresting piece of video performance by contemporary Australian artist Shaun Gladwell. Shot in Melbourne during last year’s lockdowns, it’s a moving self-portrait of the artist as he navigates life in one of our most challenging years to date. And it’s now installed prominently to the left of Citta’s sweeping marble bar.

It was created exactly 20 years after Gladwell’s seminal video work, Storm Sequence (2000), for which he is arguably best known. There, the artist skateboards elegantly – and in slow motion – in front of a stormy seascape. But in this new work he takes on a different kind of physical pursuit: long-distance running. According to Schwartz, “It is, among many other themes, about endurance as a metaphor.”

Gladwell also surveys other ordinary, everyday actions – from eating to dancing and even computing. Voice-over and cinematic framing are used to present pseudoscientific observations, while the absurdity of the actions points out the disconnect.

Particularly poignant is the video’s sense of humour. In one instance, the artist appears eating a McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish meal (subtly evoking Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth’s 1982 film 66 Scenes of America, which depicts Andy Warhol eating a Burger King Whopper). Schwartz considers it “an example of a work which is really engaging to anyone, from the casual passer-by to the art theorist”.

For Di Stasio, though, it is “the sort of thing that gave me the courage to get out of lockdown and stand right back up. So this, to me, represents freedom.”

Shaun Gladwell’s Homo Suburbiensis is now showing at Di Stasio Citta.

distasio.com.au/citta

Alana Kushnir is the founder of Guest Work Agency, a curatorial practice and legal and advisory firm for artists, collectors, commercial galleries and arts organisations.