Complementary Visions: The Art of Ron Moppett and Damian Moppett

Ron Moppett, Studio Night Orient, 2015. Alkyd, acrylic, oil on canvas with wood panel, 196.85 x 241.3 cm (3 panels). Collection of the Artist, courtesy of TrépanierBaer Gallery

From actors like the Barrymores and writers like the Waughs, to musicians like the Marleys and visual artists like the Wyeths, art often runs in families. And, while each successive generation forges its own identity, there are always traces of the family oeuvre, however faint. In an intriguing new exhibition at the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA), audiences are invited to explore the differences and commonalities in the work of father and son artists Ron Moppett and Damian Moppett.

With a career spanning 50 years, Ron Moppett is one of Canada’s best-known contemporary artists, renowned not only for his vibrant multi-panel paintings, murals and sculptures, but also for his work as a teacher, curator and gallery director. In the exhibition, Damian Moppett + Ron Moppett (Every Story Has Two Sides), Ron Moppett’s work is displayed in tandem with that of his son Damian, an acclaimed painter, sculptor, photographer and videographer in his own right.

Born in England, Ron Moppett emigrated to Calgary as a child in the late 1950s. A graduate of both the Alberta College of Art and the Instituto de San Miguel Allende in Mexico, Ron Moppett has exhibited around the world. His work is found in many public and private collections — including the Canada Council Art Bank, the Mackenzie Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) — as well as in public spaces including a massive wall mosaic in Calgary’s East Village.

Although Damian Moppett uses painting in his art practice, his work is more conceptual in nature than his father’s. Born in Calgary, Damian Moppett studied at both the Emily Carr College of Art and Design and Concordia University, later returning to Emily Carr College as a teacher. Based in Vancouver, he employs a variety of media to explore art-historical movements, and has exhibited widely across Canada.

“Ron and Damian share an interest in the role of the artist and the importance of the studio as an artistic inspiration,” said Catherine Crowston, Executive Director and Chief Curator at the AGA, in an interview with NGC Magazine. “They both draw upon elements from art history and everyday life, using the aesthetic of collage and assemblage and layering to build their work.”

Ron Moppett, Signal (Decoy with Mirrors), 1991, oil and alkyd on canvas and cotton cloth, 226.6 x 467.4 x 4 cm. Collection of the National Gallery of Canada

The AGA has created an exhibition that emphasizes certain similarities and common themes. “It’s like two solo shows that physically intersect at certain points,” she notes. “It’s their practice of looking back to other artists in history that is one of the major focuses of the show.”

Ron Moppett’s painting Signal (Decoy with Mirrors) (1991), on loan from the NGC, is typical of the stories featured in the exhibition. Signal is a three-panel work that brings a number of elements together to create a single statement. At the centre is a patterned fabric that Moppett has used as a painting surface. The two other panels feature the layers of painted images and text typical of his style. “It appears to be an aerial landscape but, on top of it, Ron has put screened image elements such as a figure skate, a candle, a diamond,” says Crowston. She says the artist is creating visual cues or associations for viewers — much as an author would use words to build a sentence — resulting in something akin to a visual poem.

His images include various historical and contemporary references and meanings that the viewer must then reassemble. “Ron Moppett tries to speak about the history of representation,” says Crowston, “and how it can shift from a floral representation to an aerial one, which is something more celestial, but then finally grounded with a human element.”

Damian Moppett, Red Table, 2013, oil on canvas, 209.3 x 224.0 cm. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver Art Gallery Acquisition Fund

In a similar vein, Damian Moppett’s Red Table (2013) explores the history of artistic practice and representation. The bright red of the table features carefully outlined paint cans, paintbrushes, string, film canisters: all elements one might find in a studio space.

“It’s a still life that represents the activity of the artist. Damian Moppett is self-reflective, but his subject is art itself: the process of making art, the studio, the history of art and the history of modernism. He turns the eye of the artist inside to the environment that’s immediately around him.” 

This turning of the artist’s eye to his immediate environment is also apparent in Damian Moppett’s drawing, Acrobat and Plaster Sculpture in Studio (2007), on loan from the NGC. Rather than serving as a preparatory study for his later sculpture, the drawing functions instead as a creative “documentation” of his studio at a specific moment in time. The sculpture is recognizable only if you know the final work — situated as it is within a massive studio space that includes large expanses of wall and other works in progress.

Damian Moppett, Acrobat and Plaster Sculpture in Studio (2007), oil on paper, 102.9 x 152.4 cm. Collection of the National Gallery of Canada

Both father and son share an awareness that artists exist not only in the real world, but also in a world in which their thinking happens in relation to history and other artists. In their separate ways, both Ron Moppett and Damian Moppett explore how artists throughout history have tried to solve common questions, such as those of representation and of abstraction.

While the original brief for the exhibition involved finding similarities in the Moppetts’ divergent art practices, in the end Crowston was struck by how dissimilar they are. “It’s fascinating that they both look to art history and other artists for information and inspiration but then choose to incorporate that into their work so differently.”

Whether one of Ron Moppett’s meditative multi-panel layered paintings, or one of Damian Moppett’s playful takes on art-historical trends, seeing their work displayed side by side is a fascinating experience. An old saw suggests that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In this case, while apple and tree share similar origins, they have borne very different fruit.

Damian Moppett + Ron Moppett (Every Story has Two Sides) is on view at the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton until January 8, 2017.

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