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Damian Moppett’s lessons in art history


Damian Moppett

Rennie Collection at Wing Sang, 51 E. Pender

Until April 21, 2011

Admission: Free, by appointment at renniecollection.org

VANCOUVER — On the floor of the cavernous exhibition space in Bob Rennie’s private Chinatown gallery, Vancouver-based visual artist Damian Moppett is assembling his latest work.

Red aluminum pipes and plates lie arranged in rows, while cables hang from the gallery’s 12-metre ceiling.

The massive site-specific piece makes a nod to art history — a hallmark of Moppett’s work.

“It’s the red that Anthony Caro used in Early One Morning,” says Moppett of the pieces’ vivid colour. The circles and cylinders will soon come together in an Alexander Calder-inspired mobile, an exploration of Moppett’s own fascination with suspension and imbalance. “I’m making a Calder-esque mobile and breaking it,” Moppett said in an interview in the gallery earlier this week.

With the opening of a major exhibition of his work, Moppett becomes the first Canadian artist in the Rennie Collection to be shown at Wing Sang — a 20,000-square-foot Chinatown space that has hosted prolific contemporary artists Mona Hatoum, Martin Creed, Amy Bessone, Thomas Houseago and Richard Jackson since opening in 2009.

Rennie has one of the largest collections of contemporary art in Canada, and has loaned pieces to institutions such as the Guggenheim, Pompidou, Smithsonian and Tate. Moppett is one of the 47 artists whose work the art collector and real estate mogul collects in depth.

Moppett’s work fosters global art dialogue in a way that bridges the generation gap, said Rennie; it’s this quality that makes it world-class.

“You get young artists coming along saying, ‘I’m going to change the world,’ but they don’t know the world that came before them,” Rennie said in an interview. “Because Damian is so steeped in art history and influenced by what came before, he creates a really great dialogue for younger artists and a great dialogue that puts him in context with senior artists.”

For Moppett, art history is itself a tool; he uses it to “gesture” when creating new work. “Referencing the work of other artists has always been an important part of my practice,” Moppett says.

On the upper floor of the gallery, 130 drawings and watercolours are arranged in thematic clusters. “Each piece has its own specific meaning and linkages to other works of mine,” says Moppett. Rather than being grouped by chronology or material, the pieces are displayed in “schematic silos.”

Past the watercolour drawings are pieces from Moppett’s earlier baroque-influenced work — pieces with which Rennie has a close personal connection. “These are so important — I’ve hung them in my house for so long,” he says. “I really, really adore them. They were in my bedroom.”

Downstairs, a 16-minute video extends Moppett’s conversation with Caro’s work. “I play a trapper set in the year 1815,” he explains. Using twigs, the bearded artist fashions a replica of Caro’s most iconic abstract piece in the place of a trap that might be used to gather food and clothing. “I was interested in making an esoteric and canonized sculpture useful in a basic, practical way,” he says.

The Rennie exhibition marks Moppett’s largest exhibition to date, but the Calgary-born artist has already earned acclaim in Canada and abroad. Represented by Vancouver’s Catriona Jeffries Gallery for more than a decade, the artist has exhibited in Montreal, Toronto, Rotterdam and New York.

Because of his playful use of historical reference, Moppett has also been slated to show work at a future Wing Sang exhibition around the theme of appropriation. “I’m especially happy to be in the company of the other artists that Bob Rennie collects,” says Moppett. “He has an in-depth collections of artists I respect greatly, and the exhibition space is dreamy.”

Back in the gallery, Rennie stands a few paces back from the room’s centre, watching as Moppett rearranges the geometric pieces according to ink-and-paper diagrams.

“I have said it all the way through: he has given me his self-portrait,” says Rennie of the paintings, drawings, ceramics, sculpture and video that comprise Moppett’s mid-career homecoming celebration. “I think the assemblage puts together what really influences this man.

“I think museums make mistakes in not having exhibitions open during installation, because I think the installation is a sketch for the show—just as sometimes you do a sketch for a painting,” he says.

“Here I think you’re watching Damian draw,” Rennie adds as the artist rearranges pieces of the as-yet-untitled suspended sculpture.

“His pencil has an absolute continuum to it.”

Special to The Sun. Published Saturday November 26, 2011. Photo by Mark Van Manen.

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