Toby Mott’s paintings – not dissimilar to religious icons – combine a debased, trash-punk aesthetic with the status symbols of the high fine arts. Mott uses superlative materials, such as real gold and silver, in combination with some subverted craft skills and lots of art historical awareness, all signed off with the authenticity of the artist’s signature. Although, on close inspection, we see that Mott’s signature is not hand written, but crudely stencilled . . .
In some ways, this is analogous with punk itself. Punk started off as a form of rebellious individuation, only to became totally co-opted into the wealthy establishment, as seen in the chorus of retrospective approval given it by politicians and other unlikely fans, on its fortieth birthday in 2016. Mott has appropriated this process, left out the boring forty years, and gone straight for a fabulous, status aware, wealthily successful, but compromised look. At its centre, as well as fun and mad beauty, Mott offers a mismatch (slippage, as art critics would say), between the capitalistic value status of his works, and their origins in disorder and rebellious imperfection – as seen in their lumpy edges, parodic signature, and fluorescent underpainting. Either that, or it’s a Tutankhamun’s tomb, in which the imperial explorer Mott enters to despoil it of all the treasures of a punk dynastic kingdom.
Value meaning in the contemporary art world is beyond parody, and its excesses of wealth and ostentation make it the Babylon of all Babylons. Mott engages in this process, in a subversive alchemy, turning base materials into gold – or vice versa. As a teenager he was a punk, since when he has started a number of successful businesses, often with a punk or handmade aesthetic. Most significantly, perhaps, he is a distinguished collector of punk ephemera 1, on which he is an authority, as manifested in exhibitions he curates, books he publishes, and events and talks he organises. All this qualifies him an entitlement to make work about punk, money, appearance, value, and the market, and to accord quivering value to the wealth objects he creates. Mott works in a tradition that includes Koons and Manzoni, with a bit of Beuys, but which is most indebted, perhaps, to Warhol, that master of all masters, in whose workshop of ideas Mott is a willing and respectful pupil.
Mott’s works, grungy lumps and all, are largely traditional in making. He oil gilds them, laying genuine gold leaf or other rare materials onto the gesso he laboriously applies. The underpainting may sometimes, in a break with tradition, involve the use of an incongruous, wildly fluorescent paint. Recognisable punk signifiers, such as razor blades and safety pins may be embedded in the surfaces. The surfaces are highly reflective – theoretical mirrors of our vanity, especially given that the titles of the works relate to other luxury products like perfumes, which have associations with self-conscious sexuality and allure.
Mott explores the branches of the tree of artistic knowledge – or, more properly, swings amongst their graffitied, punk-stickered branches – to pluck some very fruitful ideas, and then bring them to an absurdly gilded brightness. If you are intelligent, beautiful, and wealthy enough, you too can shop at the glittering cornucopia of wealth objects that shower from Mott’s version of capitalism; an ecstatic shopping experience for you and the rich, sexy punks in your life.