Scottish artist Renny Tait, like many of us, admires the shape, design, craftsmanship and inherent sense of wonder that give certain buildings iconic status wherever they stand. What marks him out as an artist is the way in which he reconstructs these edifices, simplifying and minimising them to create an idealised form.
Several of these reversioned buildings feature in Tait’s new exhibition of oil paintings at London’s Flowers Gallery. Take Battersea Power Station, for example, a familiar landmark not only to Londoners but, thanks to album covers and news of its £9 billion redevelopment, to the world. With a draftsman’s precision, Tait has stripped it down to its basic geometric form that owes more to the principles of abstraction than naturalism. It’s not quite Mondrian but along those lines.
With an almost OCD-like compulsion, the result are images uncluttered by detail or human life in which the absence of linear perspective and sense of scale emphasise the vertical and horizontal planes. The building’s famous chimneys tower into the air like classical columns, accentuated by the uniformly black sky. It gives the work a certain eeriness as if the building is a kind of sanctuary in a stormy world. Below them, the horizon is represented by a white stripe, one of Tait’s signature motifs.
Tait has painted the building many times, describing it as a “cathedral of industry”. In his idealised world it always will be so, even though the power station has long been decommissioned and its chimneys replaced with replicas. Not everyone might envisage Battersea Power Station as an aesthetic delight, but when it’s stripped of its imperfections and bathed in a soft glow against a threatening backdrop, it takes on a new interpretation. The same can be said of London’s Hayward Gallery whose Brutalist architecture is rendered largely benign by way of a sunny aspect and a reconfigured central tower.
There are two versions of Battersea on show, the other replacing the black sky with a cloudy blue one. This, Tait says, offers the threshold “to brighter worlds”, hence the exhibition’s title. Both contain reflections in a glass-like river, that emphasises the building’s solid foundation. Despite the reflections containing no ripples of distortion, his mastery of lighting renders them distinguishable from the main subject.
The same is true of Braemar Castle, with its reflection of the building and its setting of trees and mountains. The effect here is Disney-like with bright colours and a cartoon-like background. Castles and lighthouses feature prominently in Renny Tait’s oeuvre. Again, he describes them as symbols of refuge and hope in a hostile environment. His romantic depiction recalls how these buildings have been imprinted on his imagination from an early age.
Yet curiously, with many of the works in the exhibition, the denuding of detail creates a paradox since some of these buildings of strength look like they’re made of breakable plastic. The leaning tower of Pisa, for example, depicted in another painting becomes like a plastic tube ready to fall down at any moment. The dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, given two versions here, looks similarly artificial with a boat in the foreground resembling a child’s toy.
Renny Tait is in many ways a traditionalist. His schooling took place at Edinburgh College of Art, London’s Royal College of Art and the British School of Rome. Many prestigious institutions hold his work including the Royal College of Art and the Tate Collection. He has created his own world of simplified architecture that appears to be a retreat into a glowing utopia devoid of man. Another paradox. It is man who is responsible for most of the hostile forces in the world represented by the black sky, and yet it is man who was responsible for the art and creativity that produced the buildings he refashions.
The exhibition is showing at the Flowers Gallery, 21 Cork Street, London W1S 3LZ until 17 February 2018. The images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.