Dr Nikita Vanderbyl

Review | Top Arts 2013

High school students or emerging artists?

Encountering an exhibition of artworks created during the frenetic last years of high school raises serious questions about how we approach emerging artists. How exactly should we approach these artworks and their artists? And given the institutional influences on artists emerging from art schools and colleges we have to ask: are these high school students really so different? The National Gallery of Victoria doesn't think so. The curators and their team continue to approach the Top Arts finalists with the view that they are emerging artists whose work is of a standard appropriate for exhibition at the NGV. I am inclined to agree, I was stunned by the diversity of materials and subjects in this year’s show, but I was left wondering about the artists and their work and its unique position in the art world.

By all accounts you can call yourself an artist when your work is hung in a gallery, but not all of the students in Top Arts will pursue a career as artists. Some will begin degrees in architecture, mathematics, teaching or science. Because Top Arts selects from students studying Studio Arts the exhibition also features work from year eleven’s. And as you would expect they are just focusing on finishing their VCE. There are others who will continue studying art and for them an exhibition like this is a great advantage. Selecting from student work from across the state certainly means you end up with a range of intriguing artworks and the diversity subjects reflects this.

There are 43 artists in this year’s show with a wide range of mediums including street art, animation, textiles, film, installation and found objects as well as the more traditional forms of oil painting, lino printing, drawing and photography. As you would expect from this generation the photography is particularly strong, something I’ve noticed in previous finalist shows across Australia. Inevitably what interests these artists comes out in their work, from music and sport to biology and popular culture, we are reminded that these interests make for a rich approach to art making. In many ways the final artworks reflect positively on the interdisciplinarity of high school, where specialisation is encouraged in more than one area and students have the freedom to experiment. Combing interests makes for a powerful artwork, as is the case with Lucy Simpson’s oil painting of a cow’s heart – a subject perhaps only a biology student could stomach approaching.

Two horizontal paintings form Inside of a heart 1. Pink and red tones come in and out of focus from a dark maroon background. The moist and sinewy ventricles of the heart are captured in precise oil paint. It is difficult, however, to discern the subject at first – you might mistake this painting for a Surrealist exploration of liquid forms, or a pure abstraction of unknown subjects. Simpson was pleased when I suggested some alternate interpretations. She says in the exhibition catalogue that people often mistake the artwork for a picture of a strawberry milk-shake mid-pour.

Simpson’s interest in biology and anatomy lead her to create an artwork around a subject she finds fascinating. And when you think about it, an artist won’t spend a whole year with a subject which doesn’t compel them. I think it is the ability to find meaning in new places which makes this group of emerging artists not only interesting but successful. I remember the terrifying freedom of subjects like Studio Arts in which you can explore any subject you like.

The subjects and themes in this exhibition, as in previous years, are often of a maturity and depth unexpected of artists so young. This year’s group is no exception. We should not be surprised at the deep thoughts of these young people, nor should we be surprised that they are able to persuasively capture their experiences in art with such clarity and power.

Marco Fink’s photograph Dysphoric is an intense examination of identity from what most would find a painfully close angle. Standing nude before us is a self-portrait of Fink, but he is not conventionally nude, his limbs are those of a doll and his body appears to be a synthesis of plastic and flesh. Fink began with the intention to explore who he really was, but soon was wondering what really represented him. He says in the catalogue, ‘The work of art became less about what I am and more about what I desire to be – even if that desires is ultimately impossible.’ To realise the contradictions of identity while still at school might seem astounding, but remember high school. It is filled with contraditions! See these works in their educational contexts and it becomes clear there is more here than just emerging art.

Top Arts 2013 presents us with a snap shot of the last years of high school; students passions, fears and their drive to succeed. And right beside such lofty notions and grand observations there are artworks in which the artists sought nothing more than to do what they love. For example, Lucy Crossett who loves collecting. Her artwork is a representation of the precision and delicacy that goes into displaying collections. Each object has its space and is handled with care. Cossett’s objects are new and old and they reflect her love of telling stories through their arrangement in different combinations. Objects presents us with beautifully photographed things, from toy cars to cups and cameras, this collection appears to be made of small things like Matryoshka dolls and lucky cats, clocks and model houses.

This work stood out to me for the simple reason that by photographing these personally meaningful objects using clear lighting and a neutral background Cossett calls to our attention to object outside of its usual surroundings. She asks us to look at cow mugs in relation to Balinese shadow puppets and Rubik’s cubes in relation to Clag paste. Not only are these young artists natural photographers, as we see again and again (maybe it’s from growing up with a camera phone?) they are also attuned to the world of objects, perhaps growing up in a world filled with things that are recycled, bought, packaged, shipped, mined and advertised they are aware of an ecological/psychological impact of things in a way others aren’t?

My musings on objects and young people aside, you will find many artworks to prompt your thoughts in unexpected ways in Top Arts 2013. The exhibition is on display until 7 July in the NGV Studio at Federation Square.


Tess Saunders
Girl with a pearl earring
colour inkjet print
37.3 24.7cm (image)
Mornington Secondary College, Mornington

Lucy  Crossett
colour inkjet print
54.0 x 53.8 cm (image), 84.0 x 59.3 cm (sheet)
St Michaels Grammar,  St Kilda

Marco Fink
colour inkjet print
84.0 x 59.3cm (image and sheet)
The King David School ,  Armadale

Julia Bergin
lino cut, unique stat
(1-5) 42.3 x. 68.2cm (block) (each) 49.5 x. 76.0cm (sheet) (each)
Caulfield Grammar, Elsternwick

Ben Burgess
cardboard, enamel paint
20.0 x 850.0 x 230.0cm (variable) (installation)
Haileybury College, Keysborough