In The Studio With Death Spray Custom, Creator Of Works Of Automotive Art

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In The Studio With Death Spray Custom, Creator Of Works Of Automotive Art

Words by Mr Chris Elvidge | Photography by Mr Edd Horder | Styling by Mr Olie Arnold

21 June 2022

Out in Pembrokeshire, where landscape painters flock with their palettes and their brushes to capture the wild, arresting beauty of the Welsh coastline, you’ll find the studio of Mr David Gwyther, an artist who, by his own admission, hasn’t painted a landscape in as long as he can remember. “I grew up here,” he says. “When I moved back, I made a box of paints to paint landscapes again. I have yet to open that box.”

It’s not a lack of inspiration that’s been holding him back; as anyone who has visited this part of the world will readily attest, he could hardly fail to be inspired. No, he’s just been busy with something else. And it couldn’t be further, aesthetically speaking, from the craggy cliffs, the foaming waves and the endless expanse of sky that greet him every time he steps outside of his door.

You see, Gwyther is better known as Death Spray Custom, and if you’ve been exposed to the motorsports scene at any point over the past few years, there’s a good chance that you’ll have heard the name or at the very least seen some of his work.

There’s the eye-popping liveries he designed for Mr Ken Block’s Hoonigan-tuned Ford rally cars, for instance, a few of which can be seen in the driver’s viral Gymkhana series. Or his collection of bonnet designs, pastiches of corporate sponsorship decorated with a jarring mashup of big-corp and fashion logos, that could just as easily hang on the wall of a gallery as sit on top of a 600-horsepower engine.

Here at MR PORTER, we’re among the growing number who believe that a gallery is exactly where Death Spray Custom’s work belongs – and so we invited the artist to exhibit a few of his pieces at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, a four-day celebration of pistonhead culture taking place this weekend in West Sussex, UK.

Ahead of his appearance at the MR PORTER Chicane, our own little space at Goodwood, we caught up with Gwyther at his studio to hear a little more about his art, his life in deepest Wales, and his enduring love for all things motorsports.

Hello David. What can we expect to see from you at Goodwood?

I’ll be showing some helmets and some car bonnets from my first and second shows that are in private ownership so aren’t seen in the flesh very often.

Is there a work, or series or works, that you feel define you as an artist? And one that you’re most proud of?

The car bonnets are the pieces that first gave me a sort of voice and style as an artist; I think my brain helmet [an open-face motorcycle helmet with an exposed brain design] was a pleasing object to make.

What first got you into motorsports?

A used black-and-gold JPS Rally Ford Escort Rs2000 1:12 scale car; seeing riders get their knee down watching 500cc racing on TV; NGK spark plug packaging; attending local club circuit racing as a child; Motocross Action Magazine. All very early memories that stayed with me over the years.

Can you give us a window on your creative process out here in Pembrokeshire?

I live by the sea, so I look at the sea and sky every day. No visual noise, no bus advertising, no billboards. I’m not inspired by the remoteness and weather, but I use it as a vacuum to do my painting. My process is about absorbing rafts of information and detail, throwaway words, phrases, logos. Digesting them, storing them then reassembling them in a painting or sculpture.

What is it about the world of motorsports that inspires you as an artist?

I would say the absurdity of it. It’s the only sport where it’s completely acceptable to cram the logos of 50 different companies on an athlete and a piece of sports equipment and cheer it on.

A lot of what you do satirises this: an ironic appropriation of corporate and fashion logos is a recurring feature of your work. What is it about these symbols that appeals to you?

A lot of it is about twisting reality and creating things that sit in a blurred area that forces you question an item’s legitimacy. That’s the zone my art sits in. Through using these logos I’m creating items that often have the appearance of mass production but are completely unique. The quality of the finish of a glossy painting or object gives it a veneer of authenticity.

We’re seeing fashion brands take inspiration from motorsports – CELINE HOMME’s SS22 collection had a heavy motocross influence, for example. Have you personally noticed motorsports culture gaining more appreciation from outside of the scene? And if so, what do you attribute it to?

There is authenticity in danger. Also there is an incredibly vast back catalogue of designs and styles in motorsports from the past 40 years that is second to none. Bright, over-the-top artificial fabrics and protection and build to take a few crashes is quite the combo.

Your work often mixes up the visual language of motorsports with that of fashion, too, such as Fendi or Louis Vuitton logo print on jerry cans. Can you tell me more about the intention behind these pieces?

They were very early pieces from a small show that was basically a garage of all these cheap utility items. They were very popular. However, they are creatively simple and something one should do only once. I realised objects that are incredibly accessible visually would travel very fast on social media – perhaps too fast. I created a Chanel quilted version, too. A couple of years later, Chanel released their own jerry-can handbag.

Are you perhaps suggesting that this creative cross-pollination works both ways?

Not at all! But if Chanel had been inspired by me being inspired by them, well, that would have been perfect.

Tell me about your Rickman scrambler. How long have you had it?

Old bikes, you don’t really own them. You have custody for a bit. I've had it a while, but not long in context to its own age. The engine is from 1964, so 58 years old. It will be around for another 60 years for sure. I race it in pre-65 motocross; it uses methanol-based race fuel which has basically no emissions and biodegrades naturally. I like to point that out as people might think motorsport is not environmentally friendly.

Is it part of a collection? If so, tell us more…

I have a little collection of bikes and cars and cycles, all slightly kooky and nerdy in their own right. A 1967 Triumph TR6, a [Yamaha] Super Ténéré, a 1988 [Suzuki] GSXR 1100. A Land Rover Defender in a United Nations sort of style. A Mitsubishi Evo VI with street-legal rally look. Quite normal vehicles, but I can't help but make them a bit odd, like with a black Marlboro chevron and light pod.

Do you have a philosophy on collecting or do you just buy the things you like?

I believe in one thing for one job. Not lots of superbikes or sports cars. So if I get another performance car, one would have to go – or things would get a bit Car Giant. I drive a panel van 90 per cent of the time.

Any dream additions to the collection?

Having only just described myself as a minimalist collector, there are some things I would enjoy looking at and using. Nothing too mad.

Go on…

Vyrus 984 or 987 – when I first saw this I was: WTF is this thing?

Gilera CX 125.

MG Metro 6R4, plain white.

Yamaha GTS 1000 as a track bike.

Porsche 964, but with the teledial wheels.

Vincent Rapide – as a daily.

VW Baja Bug – Saturday morning coffee runner.

MkII Escort Rs2000 flat or slanted nose.

Yamaha OW01 (has to be EU inset headlights, not the flush headlights).

Gilera Nordwest.

Maico GME500 with the Öhlins forks.

I quite like that new Hyundai Ioniq, looks like a Lancia Delta.

A Co-Built framed RTS tuned BSA B50 flat track bike.

Sod it, a Land Rover 101 Forward Control or a Mercedes Unimog.

Chrome Haro Freestyler with black Skyways.

There aren’t too many new cars that turn my head, I would say a G-Wagen [Mercedes-Benz G-Class] is one that has the most potential to make interesting.

No budget? Ferrari F40, Porsche 959, Alfa Romeo SZ, Honda RN-01 G-Cross downhill bike, Kamaz Dakar truck.

You’ve created a custom piece especially for the MR PORTER Chicane. Can you tell us more about that?

I created a backdrop for the space that’s reminiscent of a podium background you often see in motorsports. The way I work is to take banal and meaningless symbols, logos and messages and selectively reassemble them to give the impression of meaning. It’s more difficult than it sounds. It’s a style I developed from collecting the decal sheets you get with model aircraft and cars. The tagline on this one is “You have to not want what you want to get what you want.” It covers everything: love, life death, money, beauty, power.

Goodwood is a partner of MR PORTER. Goodwood Festival of Speed runs 23-26 June