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The character of Anna Schwartz Gallery is encapsulated by the closing sentence of a new book that charts the history of this shape-shifting Melbourne art institution. In Present Tense: Anna Schwartz Gallery and Thirty-Five Years of Contemporary Australian Art, an elegantly written and formidable tome, critic and curator Doug Hall writes, “Anna’s commercial enterprise is a life long curated project, and the crossover between arousing public interest and securing commercial rewards gives the gallery its special personality.”

This ‘special personality’ infuses the large-scale group exhibition, Never the same river, an assemblage of works by more than 50 artists from home and abroad, ranging from the 1980s to the present day and across multiple mediums. Given the pedigree of artists on show, this is a kind of greatest hits compilation for this immensely influential gallery – and the works can be said to combine that hint of commercial appeal with originality and provocation. Names include Australians such as Shaun Gladwell, Mike Parr, Mikala Dwyer, Angelica Mesiti and Shelley Lasica, as well as international figures such as Antony Gormley, Angela de la Cruz, Yinka Shonibare and John Stezaker. Never the same river also features photographic works from Patti Smith and Warwick Thornton.

The stylistic breadth and multicultural flavour of the exhibition is a testament to Anna Schwartz as a magnet for innovation in contemporary art. One of the artists, Louisa Bufardeci, whose relationship with the gallery spans 20 years, says, “I have always felt Anna’s approach towards the work she shows to be uncompromising and this, I suspect, is the secret of her success. Her strong commitment to local artists extends to the international art world and vice-versa.”

Louisa Bufardeci, Sweeping One and the Other Away, 2019, LED display, 20 x 200 cm, 22 hours 20 minutes © Louisa Bufardeci. Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery.

The show draws from the exhibition histories of four galleries Schwartz has overseen: United Artists (1982-1988), City Gallery (1988-1993), and Anna Schwartz Gallery in Melbourne (1993-present) and Sydney (2008-2015). Never the same river reflects both Schwartz’s vision and the sheer longevity of her arts patronage.

A key philosophy behind the exhibition is a refutation of linearity and succession in terms of aesthetic ideas; that for artists, there is no trajectory towards an ‘objective’ or ‘completion’ over the course of a career, more a restless exploration of concepts that is an expansion, rather than a journey.

“Artists move backwards and forwards and sideways through and with their ideas and subjects,” says Schwartz. “For example, the exhibition includes two paintings by Stieg Persson that directly relate to each other. One painting was made in 1983 and the other was made late last year. There has been a period of 35 years in between those paintings, but for the artist it’s just an ongoing exploration of subject and form.

“This is not an uncommon phenomenon, but rather a typical example of the way artists approach their subjects and mediums in a circular way. There’s no clear chronological ‘progression’. There’s no teleology in an artist’s practice.”

Fitting firmly into that idea is one of the headlining works of Never the same river, the re-presentation of Lasica’s dance performance Dress, first performed at Anna Schwartz Gallery in 1998. Lasica’s work, a collaboration with the fashion designer Martin Grant, is an inquiry into how clothing affects and alters the physical habits of our bodies. Lasica and Schwartz’s association goes back to 1989.

“When I started making work as a choreographer, I was very clear about how important it was for my work to be seen in various contexts,” says Lasica, who will perform Dress on November 8 and 9, “in particular, a visual arts context, and Anna really understood that.”

The 2019 iteration of Dress will feature exactly the same choreography and clothes as in 1998. However, the piece will be reenergised and reanimated by the vastly different social context in which it will now be performed. In this way, Dress fits neatly into Schwartz’s idea of artists exploring work and ideas in a ‘circular way’. Lasica has also been studiously careful about when and where she revisits Dress.

Shelley Lasica, Dress, 1998, a costumed performance in collaboration with designer Martin Grant. Photo: Kate Gollings © Shelley Lasica. Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery.

“I was asked to [perform Dress] 10 years ago and decided not to do it because the context is very important and it didn’t feel like the right time,” says Lasica. “But it felt like a good thing to do now, for various reasons.

“I think attitudes to clothing and body image have really shifted since I made the work, as well as people’s sense of how they identify themselves and what might be considered dominant forms of showing and display.”

Dress represents the overarching values of the exhibition in its questioning of how work created in a certain cultural framework and point in time can provoke different discourse when presented in another. And this, for Schwartz herself, is indicated by the show’s charismatic title.

“The title is a poetic interpretation of a Heraclitean statement about change being constant,” says Schwartz. “Specifically, it acknowledges the changing meaning of artworks according to context, as well as to the audience’s position at the time of experiencing the work. The meanings of an artwork are varied and variable, never fixed.”

Never the same river
Anna Schwartz Gallery
5 October—21 December

This article was originally published in the November/December 2019 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Feature Words by Barnaby Smith