From the stock room

By Rhonda Dredge

You’re judged in the art world by the decisions you make and Anna Schwartz remembers going down to an artist-run space in Prahran in the early ‘90s. 

“When I first started going to Store 5 I was so interested in the artists and what they were doing there,” she said.

“They were showing commitment to a very unrecognised exhibition space.”

Some of the shows in the tiny room lasted for just a day but the artists had a common manifesto and that was to keep modernist abstraction alive in the face of postmodern simulations.

Kerry Poliness, Melinder Harper, Stephen Bram and Kathy Tremin, who had all just graduated, were part of the Store 5 collective with older artist John Nixon as mentor.

The room was so small that the person looking after an exhibition often stood in the laneway outside.

These humble beginnings become the legends of the art world, living on as bright stories to inspire those looking for their own creative direction. By definition, the avant garde is original, subversive and short-lived.

Commercial galleries play an important role by showing, selling and preserving work that might otherwise be lost. Store 5 closed in 1983. It was tucked in behind the Maples store close to the local art school.

Now those artists have selected works for Never the same river, an historical exhibition spanning 38 years of Anna’s art business, the last 24 years in Flinders Lane in a building designed by architect Denton, Corker and Marshall. 

Some pieces still seem fresh, such as the lovely little constructions by Kerrie Poliness out of shattered plywood from 1986, which connect to Russian constructivism but challenge it in terms of materials. 

These pieces seem funny and tentative, compared to more recent egotistical attempts by Melbourne’s art community to be part of a global industry. 

“I think that the point of difference is that the public is more educated than it was,” Anna said. “A lot of people travel. A larger part of the culture is engaged with art. The whole culture swims in it.”

Anna can take some of the credit for that. She was one of the first gallerists to take Australian artists overseas to art fairs. 

Never the same river includes the work of 50 artists from her stable. The hang will be changed in November to coincide with the launch of a book on the gallery scene.

There are big names in the show but also many amusing moments in this soulful trajectory through Melbourne art.

A collage on masonite made out of the black and white fur of cut-up bears is vintage Kathy Temin, the artist having a giggle at modernism’s pretensions. 

“It’s a very early one,” Anna said. Before her problems in a corner? “You’ll have to check the date.”

There’s a clever installation of paintings by Mikala Dwyer done in nail polish in 2003, at a time when content was being dominated by spatial concerns.

A gold enamel by Dale Frank is elegant in its pouring, a departure from his more rambunctious works.  “It’s an early monochrome,” she said. “Quite significant.”

There’s a great quote lit up in neon: “to be an artist is to fall as no other dare fall.”

Yes, artists do fall. They have to be modest. They may go out of trend but the best live on in collections and stockrooms around the country.

Never the same river, Anna Schwartz, Flinders Lane, until December 21.

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