National Gallery of Canada: The Moppet show offers related visions from father and son

Ron Moppett, Whatif/Twilight, 2008, oil, alkyd, and acrylic on canvas, installation dimensions variable. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Gift of the artist, Calgary, 2015. © Ron Moppett. Photo: courtesy of Trépanizrbaer Gallery.

All art is connected along an infinite line of creation that spans time, place and experience, the grand sum of countless inspired imaginations. Just as no creature ever crawled from the primordial ooze without ancestors, no art materializes from the conceptual ether without influence. All art is, in a word, related.

The exhibition Related Works: Ron Moppett + Damian Moppett is the latest entry in the National Gallery’s boutique series titled Masterpiece in Focus. In one room are a dozen or so projects — though just one of them, by Damian, includes more than 40 small watercolour drawings, and a cabinet holds dozens of stencils that Ron has used in his art, again and again. The Moppett show raises deep connections, including relationships between . . .

1. Father and son: The artists — Ron emigrated from England as a child and has been producing art in Alberta since the 1960s, and Damian works in Vancouver — have both been collected by the gallery since early in their careers — Ron since 1971, and Damian since 2001. Associate curator of contemporary art Jonathan Shaughnessy says Ron’s Home and Away, a large, stencilled oil on canvas included in the exhibition, was “one of the first works I ever acquired for the gallery,” in 2006.

One tangible link between father and son is their use of cardboard, which appeared in Ron’s work in the 1970s and again in Damian’s work 30 years later. Though they use the pedestrian material in distinct ways, its presence underscores the link of “assemblage and collage” as a shared style, Shaughnessy says. For example, Ron’s Dunce: 2 (Tango), from 1982 is an wall-hung exercise in leaving “rational” thought behind, while Damian’s untitled sculpture from 2010 is “bound up in material exploration.” The link between is evident, but the purposes diverge. Such is the relationship between father and son, between influencer and influenced.

Damian Moppett, Studio with Blue Window, 2011, watercolour on paper, 23 x 34 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Gift of the Rennie Foundation, 2017. © Damian Moppett, Courtesy Rennie Collection, Vancouver. Photo: Blaine Campbell

2. Artist and studio: Both artists are in the “studio every day, hashing things out,” Shaughnessy says. Yet, as the curator wrote in the gallery’s magazine, “For Ron, the daily grind of art-making involves entering the studio and leaving the world behind. For Damian, the mysteries of studio production are not so much assumed as prodded and questioned; recorded and re-presented. ‘For my generation,’ Ron has commented, ‘it was enough to say ‘yes, whereas for Damian, there is always a ‘yes, but.’”

Shaughnessy adds in an interview, “I don’t think we find many father and son artists who have their own very established, successful practices, but also come back so often to certain themes, like how do artists work in the studio, what is the role of the studio in art history?”

The show provides intimate hints of each artists’s relationship with his studio: Ron, a wall panel explains, left “the ‘rational stuff’ outside the studio in order to be anything but a “dumb painter inside.” On another wall a small watercolour by Damian, titled Studio with Blue Window, offers a partial view into his studio, though half obscured by the back of a dark canvas or door, as if to not reveal all.

3. Purchases and donations: The exhibition is an ad hoc collection of acquisitions by the gallery and donations from both artists and collectors. The largest single work is Ron’s 2008 installation Whatif/Twilight, which was seriously damaged by flood waters in Calgary in 2013 — its storage place, unlike the houses in the painting at the heart of the installation, was not raised on stilts. Gallery conservators restored the painting, and a grateful Ron donated it to the permanent collection.

The Dunce: 2 (Tango) piece, mentioned above, was donated by Calgary collector Ken Bradley, while the untitled sculpture by Damian is on loan from Ottawa collector John Cook, and only because Damian mentioned to Shaughnessy that “one of my favourite sculptures I’ve ever made is in Ottawa.”

The 40-plus watercolours by Damian — which were painted from photographs of his various influences, from Henry Moore to thrash metal music — were selected from approximately 135 drawings donated to the gallery by Vancouver collector Bob Rennie.

The gallery doesn’t accept just any gift, as the art being offered has to fill a gap in the collection, to complement and expand upon what’s already there. That’s why astute collectors, such as Rennie and Bradley, are essential to building the collection in a compelling and coherent way — in this instance, by sharing the links between father and son.

The Moppett exhibition continues to Sept. 10.


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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.