Top Arts and ARTEXPRESS: What young people are thinking


Far from being a clunky display of papier-mâché heads and oil paintings of flowers, the contemporary Year 12 art exhibition incorporates multiple artforms produced with impressive technical skill. Each state and territory in Australia hosts its own version of these exhibitions, and in the metropolitan centres the current range includes: Top Arts (Vic), ARTEXPRESS (NSW), Pulse Perspectives (WA), ArtRage (Tas), Exit Art (NT), SACE Art Show (SA), Step into the Limelight (ACT) and Creative Generation Excellence Awards in Visual Arts (Qld). Most continue on to tour regional galleries, while smaller art venues hold additional Year 12 art shows of their own.

Julius Yu, Cavity, 2018, oil on board, painted wooden dowels, acrylic sheets, nails, plywood. Featured in Pulse Perspectives 2019 at the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

Since their inception, the primary role of Year 12 art exhibitions has been to celebrate academic excellence and serve as an accessible educational tool for prospective high school art students. However, as a long running annual exhibition series, these student exhibitions are also a well-documented visual marker of nationwide social and political change, intimately engaging the current concerns of young people.

This year is the 25th anniversary of Top Arts at the National Gallery of Victoria and NGV educator and Top Arts curator David Menzies has been at the helm for 11 years. He has watched the exhibition evolve and views it as a “litmus test of how the world is going.”

When asked if the topics young people were engaging with have changed since he began at the NGV, Menzies says, “Artists will always ponder the issues and concerns of their day. The perennial concern in Top Arts is the environment. Currently there’s a focus on climate change and one of the standout pieces reflecting this is by Ballarat Grammar student, Nicholas Gilbert. His work STORM, 2018, is a wearable piece of art made from tulle, polystyrene and chicken wire. It looks like a tangle of grey tubes that hovers around his body and was designed to replicate the air flow of a hurricane to conceptualise how you can get caught up in the path of destruction.” Since his inclusion in Top Arts, Gilbert has been offered a place at the London College of Fashion where he will complete an undergraduate degree.

Nicholas Gilbert, STORM, 2018, tulle, polystyrene balls, clear tubing, chicken wire, wood and smoke machine, 900.0 x 950.0 x 85.0 mm (body), 1200.0 x 1000.0 x 700.0 mm (tail), Ballarat Grammar, Wendouree © Nicholas Gilbert. Featured in Top Arts, 2019.

Now in its 35th year at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, ARTEXPRESS has also morphed with the times. This year, AGNSW and ARTEXPRESS 2019 curator Louise Halpin saw an increased volume of works incorporating issues of gender and diversity. “We noticed young women exploring the #metoo movement. A lot of kids draw from their personal stories of overcoming adversity and things that have happened in their lives. There are persistent trends, but often subjects will remain particular to a specific year.”

Mental health is another topic becoming more prevalent. “It has certainly come to light more so in recent years,” Menzies explains. “What comes through in Top Arts this year is how the complexity and fragility of the mind affects our daily living.”
As an incubator for the artists of tomorrow, a Year 12 art exhibition has been the starting point for several high-profile alumni, including painters Ben Quilty and Ash Keating; Anne Loxley, C3West senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; and Simone Douglas, now an associate professor at New York’s Parsons School of Art.

Actively highlighting lifelong methods of best practice in ARTEXPRESS, Halpin believes an essential part of a student’s success is hard work and persistence. One of the ways Year 12 art exhibitions reveal the dedicated process involved in making a body of work is by integrating the student folio. Much like a diary, the folio follows a student’s journey through the year and is filled with detailed notes, sketches and visual records of how an artwork was conceived, developed and brought to fruition – clearly demonstrating good art doesn’t happen overnight.

Jacinta D’Cunha, Dear sisters … in solidarity, 2018, featured in ARTEXPRESS, 2019.

“Over the past few years we have really focused on the process of making an artwork, as ARTEXPRESS is part of a learning activity for many visiting students,” says Halpin. “In the exhibition space we have displayed student diaries on the title wall, so as soon as you enter there is documentation of the creative process that occurred before the included works were finished and displayed.”

In Top Arts, Menzies also emphasises the importance of being able to see the process behind an artist’s journey. “With access to folios, students can see all the annotations and the experiments each artist undertook. It’s really inspirational and gives a good idea of what they need to do in order to do well.”

Immensely popular with gallery visitors and prospective art students, Year 12 art exhibitions are a major audience drawcard. Representing an impeccably high standard of work – as says Menzies says, “every piece in Top Arts comes from an A+ folio” – the cultural value of these exhibitions is clearly not confined to students.

Joelle Kantila, Pukimani’s amitiya jukuwarringuwi, clay, 2018. Featured in Exit Art, at the Museum and Art Gallery of Northern Territory, 2019.

To sum up, Menzies recounts a memorable experience with a visiting octogenarian several years ago. “We were downstairs in the Top Arts gallery and I asked if he was looking for assistance to access other parts of the NGV,” Menzies says. “He turned to me and said, ‘No! I come every year to see Top Arts. It’s one of my favourite exhibitions. I love it because it tells me what the young people are thinking. It gives me hope.’”

Step into the Limelight
ANU School of Art and Design
30 July – 10 August 2019

Creative Generation Excellence Awards in Visual Art
Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA)
25 May – 25 August 2019

Top Arts 2019
National Gallery of Victoria Australia
22 March – 14 July 2019

Art Gallery of New South Wales
7 February – 28 April

Feature Words by Briony Downes