Top Arts 2020 showcases the artistic achievements of young Victorian artists. A component of the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) Season of Excellence arts festival, the exhibition presents the works of forty-three students from metropolitan and regional schools from across the state. Students in Top Arts 2020 employ a breadth of media: painting, photography, drawing, animation, sculpture, participatory and performance art, among other forms, to express their ideas about nature, global warming, mental health, beauty, human rights and the cyber world.
This year’s exhibitors were chosen from more than 1700 submissions by a selection panel comprising Rachael Miller, VCAA State Reviewer for VCE Art; Giuliana D’Angelo, VCAA State Reviewer for VCE Studio Arts; Julie Bond, VCAA Country Representative; and David Menzies, NGV Top Arts Curator and Educator. The panel based their selection on key criteria including conceptual development, technical excellence, aesthetic considerations, awareness of past and contemporary art practices, individuality and innovation.
Celebrating its twenty-sixth year at the NGV, Top Arts continues to feature diverse works, styles and mediums. During the curatorial process, three major themes – ‘perception’, ‘identity’ and ‘simpatico’ – emerged from the final forty-six works of art.
Just as artists before them, Top Arts exhibitors encourage us to see the world more deeply. Eye make change, 2019, is the result of Juliana Neild’s creative and critical thinking around the concept of change. A modern-day Heraclitus, she seeks to understand the world like the ancient Greek philosopher through 144 etchings that have been assembled to mirror a pair of searching eyes. Dusty Diddle’s An index of childhood memories, anger and intervention, 2019, is a protest work enacting a call for change. Using her art to challenge racism, she placed copies of her hand-drawn postcards in public locations throughout Melbourne, in the hope to encourage empathy in the wider community.
Ignatz Cady Freer’s research of the art movement Surrealism inspired the video work Tubularis acrobatics, 2019, in which he playfully explores the human need to find meaning in existence by trapping his characters in a circular reality. Not unlike Cady Freer’s subjects, the child in Nicholas Burgos’s The cosseter, 2019, has been limited in her ability to interact with the world due to an over-protected childhood. Burgos says his work intends to ‘highlight that children in modern society have lost the ability to be curious and have imagination’.
Top Arts 2020 exhibitors also embraced the challenge of capturing personal and sensitive insights into human identity. Ideas around culture, age, ethnicity, sexuality and gender have been expressed with paint, photography, graphite, textiles, digital collage and clay.
Patchwork, 2019, explores the many layers of identity. Cat Distel explains ‘by using an assortment of different materials and textures stitched into one piece, [the work] challenges the viewer’s understanding of what makes up a person’.
Angelo Ooi references both his Australian and his Malaysian cultural background, in Manifestations, 2019, and Transience, 2019. Brought together, they symbolise an acknowledgement and integration of both cultures in his identity. Jen Wu similarly investigates her heritage and wishes to ‘prompt viewers to reflect on their own childhood experiences and cultural identity’ in Roots, 2019.
Grace Stevenson’s Fast forward, 2019, shows a young girl using a remote control to ‘accelerate’ into adult life. Stevenson’s painting and folio represent the desires of the young and old to switch ages. Also reflecting on the ageing body, Lucy Randall depicts eighty-seven-year-old Mr Tak Wong’s daily routine of an afternoon run to keep fit and agile in Randall’s local neighbourhood of Hampton. The shuffler, 2019, reflects the resilience of this local identity.
Through self-portraiture, Lewis Egan’s Hallway portraits, 2019, and Ethan Tan’s Androgyny, 2019, question society’s cultural ideals and simplification of gender identity. In his folio, Tan notes that his ‘own journey inspires [his] work heavily as an artist’. Egan explains ‘throughout [his] childhood, the Australian idealisation of hyper-masculinity disrupted [his] ability to understand and express an authentic sense of self’.
A word of Latin origin, ‘simpatico’ communicates deep connections and compatibility between people. Works in Top Arts 2020 demonstrate artists’ close associations with their subjects and express feelings of awe, anger, joy, sadness, love, fear and hope.
The defensive figure in Memphis Neagle’s Lost reflects intense desperation and the experience of being entrapped and isolated. If you prick us do we not bleed?, 2019, exhibits Lizzie Hall’s passion for literature. Her pen drawing depicts Shylock, Shakespeare’s chief antagonist from The Merchant of Venice. As Hall says, ‘I want my portrait’s raw, unleashed emotion expressed across his [Shylock’s] haggard features to almost confront my audience, probing sympathy for his plight’.
JiaHua (Austin) Zou is equally impassioned in his plea for peace through his depiction of war in Fractured, 2019, as Bianca Julicher is on the issue of environmental vandalism. Julicher states that she ‘wasn’t interested in creating a piece that tiptoes around [her] ideas and meaning. $, 2019, spells out all wrongs, that as humans we have created’.
By contrast, glimpses of natural beauty in the ordinary are revealed in Tasmia Islam’s oil painting Holding life, 2019, and Jack Hewish’s close-up photography series Portraits of nature, 2019.
Personifying the theme of simpatico, Shae Jones expresses her deep respect for the world’s oldest continuous living culture and Aboriginal Ngurungaeta (head man) of the Wurundjeri in Murrundindi, 2019.
As Tony Ellwood AM, Director, of the National Gallery of Victoria states, ‘Top Arts is an opportunity for many people and especially students to engage with the arts and share their art with peers’. Overall, the forty-three exhibitors’ works are outstanding exemplars of how art can enrich the way we understand the world and make a positive change.
David Menzies is Curator of Top Arts 2020.