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In the wake of discussion sparked by Mark Davis's critical study, 'Gangland', 'youth' has become a priority government policy area. This can be problematic, for two reasons. Firstly, in terms of how we define the period of youth, and secondly, because these sorts of policy priorities can essentialise and homogenise the experiences of being young. Youth is a condition which cuts across all other demographic categories and any attempt to see young people as an homogeneous population is automatically doomed to failure. The inability of the 1985 International Year of Youth campaign to capture the imagination of young people in this country should have been a warning to all those who seek to cater to the needs of the nation's youth in a broad all-encompassing way. Fortitude, a group exhibition of art produced in Queensland by practitioners under thirty-five years of age, appears to suffer from these limitations. Including a range of artists at various stages of their careers and from widely differing artistic backgrounds, the show purports to be an overview of young art produced around the state. it makes no other curatorial claim. I have several concerns with this.
The definition of a young artist as any within more or less the first half of his/her life seems overly broad. The point is made on the show's opening didactic panel and in the catalogue that a majority of the immigrants on board the settler ship Fortitude, after which the show is named, were under thirty-five. Given the average lifespan of those living in the early Nineteenth Century and the rigours of the boat voyage from Europe this would hardly be surprising. Being in one's thirties at that time constituted not only adulthood but a certain maturity. Are today's ever expanding definitions of youth robbing artists in their thirties of their own claims to maturity and ignoring the difficulties of much younger artists?
There is no doubt that young, fresh art has an important place in our public galleries, and that the Queensland Art Gallery's initiative is an important one, but I question the sort of sample bag approach which has become so prevalent in our galleries. Ranging from Alick Tipoti's immaculate linocut prints through Craig Walsh's architectural gallery intervention, to Lucy Francis's multimedia work, Fortitude covers almost every possible type of artistic practice. What is interesting is that much of the work competes effectively within the arena of contemporary art without the need for a proviso of youthfulness. Twenty-five year old Alick Tipoti's lino prints are highly proficient and professional, working with several layers of meaning. Yenda Carson provides one of the few sculptural moments in the show with her minimal glassworks and Pip Haydon's icing-sugar rosettes on a suprematist surface make a striking entrance. An artist of only twenty-one years of age, Rosella Namok's work integrates a strong sense of Indigenous tradition with a contemporary graphic sensibility.
The area of new media is represented solely by Lucy Francis whose CD ROM, 'Jackie ohhh!', 1997, is projected onto one wall of the gallery. Her more recent website, 'Living in Aphasia' seems out of place in a gallery context. We are given tantalising glimpses of a more recent work on the Fortitude website. Given the speed with which the new media area is evolving it seems a pity not to see this artist's most recent work. Adam Donovan works in the closely allied area of science and technology. Or more correctly, within our own romantic expectations of science. His sound work, Phone/escape, included in Fortitude is his most successful to date. Don Heron's and Anne Wallace's paintings seem particularly poorly served in the context of this show. Heron's work would be better appreciated against the greater traditions of landscape painting. Wallace is one of the State's more talented and respected figurative painters and the last year has seen her work travel from a solo retrospective show at the Brisbane City Gallery to inclusion in this collection of young art. Carl Warner's work epitomises the dilemma of photography at the turn of the millennium. it was not that long ago that photography was forced to justify its artistic credibility against accusations of the discipline's youth-but in the face of interactive media the process seems almost antiquated. As a consequence Warner's work is unfairly made to fight for a voice in the context of this show, somewhere between the easel painting and the moving image. it is Craig Walsh's work which appears to escape the limitations of the group show format most successfully. On a midday visit to the Gallery I watched schoolgirls forcing their midriffs into the window spaces of Walsh's scale model of the gallery. Their navels were consequently being projected onto the wall behind them, magnified a hundredfold. This young audience had found its own level of interactivity with the artwork and this was irreverent and audacious. Perhaps Walsh's understanding comes from his longstanding involvement with youth audiences in arenas such as the Livid Festival, but if Fortitude is about appealing to the young as well as packaging the young, and thus ensuring a new audience for visual art, this work has achieved its aim.
Fortitude has sparked a wide range of discussions on a number of topics from access to censorship. If the exhibition itself represents a starting point for the acceptance of younger talented artists into the visual arts establishment then this will have been a constructive process. If however, Fortitude reveals itself as only a token attempt at wider representation within our major public exhibition space it may prove to have been more divisive than anything else.