Top Arts celebrates exceptional art from Victoria’s young and emerging artists who have completed their studies of Art or Studio Arts as part of the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE). This year, 2019, marks twenty-five years of Top Arts at the National Gallery of Victoria. Since its first showing in 1995, an estimated 1200 students have presented their work in Top Arts and more than a million people have visited the exhibition. The Gallery is proud of the association it has established with young artists over the years through this annual show and is delighted by the many exciting and creative pathways taken by Top Arts participants in their professional lives.
Top Arts works have consistently delighted our senses, provoked thought and surprised us. Students, through their VCE art studies, have demonstrated an enthusiastic approach to investigating ideas, seeking out inspiration, and trialling materials and techniques to realise at least two finished works of art.
Each year more than two thousand students throughout Victoria apply to participate in Top Arts. The exhibition is part of the Victorian Curriculum Assessment and Authority’s (VCAA) annual VCE Season of Excellence arts festival that highlights student achievements in the arts and technology. This year the applications, from which forty-six students’ works were selected, eloquently communicate a diverse range of young people’s passions, interests and concerns; more specifically, the selected works for Top Arts 2019 primarily explore the themes of ‘portraiture’, ‘innovation’ and ‘place’.
Portraiture is an ever-popular genre for Top Arts applicants; a portraitist needs to apply considerable skill, and creative and critical thinking to capture the essence and nuances of their subject. For example, Marcus Begutter in Wizened, 2018, examines the fragility of the mind through charcoal portraits of his grandparents on cardboard. Joshua Kidd, in his work Untitled, 2018, combines darkroom and digital photographic techniques to create large-scale and spectacularly striking black-and-white portraits. Further, Kiarna Taylor in Disguise, 2018, responds to the challenge of presenting the rawness of the human face by drawing with markers taped to long handle paintbrushes.
Top Arts works often demonstrate an artist’s originality and inventiveness through the use of interesting materials and techniques. For example in Transparency, 2018, Brianna Burns highlights the complexity of identity by wearing 3D-anaglyphic glasses when drawing the images of both ‘Dan’ and his drag queen character ‘Nancy’. Francesca Sulfaro married a moving image within a still to realise her captivating work Moving Surrealism Photography series, 2018. Further, Storm Bell produced Interactive drawing IV, 2018, using his free-wheeling drawing machine constructed from a forty-four-gallon drum with paper wrapped around its middle. Pens made marks on the paper when individuals interacted with the machine. Other works in Top Arts 2019 incorporate repurposed clothing, multimedia, imaginatively mixed traditional mediums and wearable art.
The theme of place is also explored in Top Arts works this year through paintings, photographs, drawings and sculptures. A place can be as intimate and comforting as a bedroom, or as disconcerting and alienating as a new country for an immigrant. Ariel Reyes, intrigued by the question of identity and stereotypes, identified her own mix of ethnicities by way of a DNA test and portrayed them in several striking photographs titled Stereotypical, 2018. Aretha Brown explores the impact of intergenerational trauma as she comes to terms with her family’s history as part of the Stolen Generation in Time is on our side, You Mob, 2018. Jared Psaila in Maintaining the Wa, 2018, intricately contrasts traditional and Westernised Japanese culture and landscape. Nicholas Gilbert in STORM, 2018, which is sculptured from intertwining tubes mimicking a tornado, draws attention to humanity’s hand in accelerating the pressing contemporary issue of climate change.
Twenty-five years ago, the inaugural VCE art exhibition titled Starting Out: VCE Top CATs 1994 was held in the Murdoch Court at NGV International. The exhibition ran for four weeks and more than 43,000 visitors paid entry to see it. On display were 114 students’ works of art (selected from 550 applications). Works related to themes of human complexity, sexuality, racism, ideas of freedom, joy, fantasy and concerns for the environment; participants responded with profound insight to the culture and concerns of their day. Film, music and visual artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Salvador Dalí and Albert Tucker spurred many investigations. Students creatively used computer manipulated photography, photocopiers, silkscreen printing, and even teabags to generate their works. The age of the internet had just been launched, and smartphones with interactive screens, fast connectivity and social media apps had yet to arrive. Students consequently relied on teachers, art networks, libraries, DVDs, CDs, magazines, newspapers and galleries to inspire and inform their art.
Today, National Gallery of Victoria exhibitions are still influential in students’ explorations and the development of their knowledge and skills. This year, for instance, Kane Jutson was inspired to create Rug, 2018, following his excursion to The Field Revisited (The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, April–August 2018). Nina Alston’s In Our Mind, 2018, references the materials and techniques that artist Louise Paramor employed in the exhibition Palace of the Republic (The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, November 2017–March 2018); and Ana Lívia Maiorino was moved by Del Kathryn Barton’s aesthetics in the exhibition The Highway is a Disco (The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, November 2017–March 2018) that she subsequently produced Untitled #1, 2018.
Over its twenty-five year history, Top Arts has been exhibited in various spaces at the National Gallery of Victoria and its title has had various iterations reflecting the link to the VCE curriculum of the time. Some highlight works of past years include Jack Daye’s installation of two hundred photographic works for Monsters to Queens and Everything In Between: A Journey of Self Discovery, 2009, which exuberantly explored the artist’s fertile mind and expressive identity. Valona Flamuri’s work Thalassophobia: Phobias, 2012, made from seaweed, mussel shells, human hair and nylon cord, uniquely expressed Flamuri’s fascination with phobias. Who could possibly don this wearable art without feeling slightly ill at ease? Migle Žvirblyte created a living, sprouting and ephemeral clothing item, Dress, 2014, to captivate the imagination of the viewer; ideas of the impermanence of life and vulnerability are cleverly referenced in this work. In 2015, Rosemary Duffy inventively created Grace, 2015, utilising a sheet of stretched plastic bubble wrap to construct a portrait whereby each bubble was injected with one of eighty-seven colours. The work commented on a person’s digital identity versus everyday reality.
When reflecting upon twenty-five years of Top Arts, the abiding commonality throughout the years is the students’ extraordinary creativity and absolute commitment to excellence in their work. Top Arts students consistently cite passion, organisation, hard work and imagination as their keys to success. It is these attributes that underlie all of the works, and it is heartening to see the popularity of the exhibition continue with more than 180,000 people visiting Top Arts each year.
As Tony Ellwood AM, Director, National Gallery of Victoria, states, ‘Top Arts continues to serve as an annual testament to the extraordinary budding talent across the state and the NGV is proud to offer a forum where young people can creatively express themselves through art’.
David Menzies is the curator of Top Arts 2019.