Russell Young is an English artist (*1959) who works with iconic silkscreens showing portraits of celebrities. He imitates Andy Warhol’s way of printing. His “anti-celebrity” portraits are a reaction to his earlier life. He began his career as a celebrity photographer and had his breakthrough with the shooting for George Michael’s album Faith.
His “anti-celebrity” portraits are a reaction to his former life. He began his career as a celebrity photographer and had his breakthrough shooting for George Micheal’s album Faith.
Russell Young was born in Yorkshire in 1959, where he was immediately put into foster care and then into a nunnery and adopted before he was a year old. No one knew for sure who his birth parents were, although there were rumors that his mother was fourteen and his father was from Italy. In northern England, he spent much of his time moving from town to town, living an isolated life. It was here that Russell Young took his first photographs of birds on the lawn, only for the film to come back so darkly developed that he could barely make out the birds. Like those first photographs, Russell Young’s life evolved with areas blurred by abandonment. The lack of a personal or even shared history left him free to explore dreams and fantasies of sometimes better, sometimes harder worlds. This longing has led to a body of work that is an uncompromising, intimate love letter addressed to these vastnesses that prove with each inscription to be rich, wild frontiers.
With few prospects other than working in factory towns, Russell Young lied about his birth year to attend art school at the age of fifteen. Had he not done so, he most likely would have moved to the streets of London and died. Five years later, Russell Young moved to the capital and attracted the attention of photographer Christos Raftopoulos, whom he assisted for several years. Raftopoulos introduced Young to another side of himself, built him his own darkroom, took him to the opera, showed him the limits of his life and did not need to restrict him or his work. During this time, still raw in nature and occasionally homeless, he photographed the early performances of Bauhaus, R.E.M. and The Smiths. His innate eye for movement led him to photo shoots for magazines and eventually his first record cover for George Michael’s 1986 album Faith.
Russell Young continued to photograph celebrities and shoot music videos, which eventually led him to the United States. The rock star aesthetic he brandished in his photographs lent itself to his earliest screen prints, which followed in the 2000s. His first series, Pig Portraits, shown in Los Angeles in 2003, collected the infamous mug shots (real and staged) of celebrities awash in fame and monochrome, but also restrained because of their actions. In his subsequent series, Dirty Pretty Things, he began to incorporate his popular use of diamond dust into his images. The glamorous shots of cultural icons glittering in powdered diamonds embodied the desires and aspirations of their eras.
In the summer of 2009, Russell Young headed to the Greek island of Ithaca. Raftopoulos, who owned a house there, invited him to stay. The island served as a refuge for him. It led Russell Young, leaving behind his past and the expectations of his work on the shores of the mainland, to reclaim the sense of isolation that had haunted him all his life. There, in the midst of ancient olive groves, he soaked himself in goat’s blood obtained from a local butcher and pressed his body against linen. It was a monstrous performance, intended for no one but himself. Like a blasphemous reinterpretation of the Shroud of Turin, this wild and highly personal act marked a seminal turning point. It began what would become an ongoing and visceral conversation between his body, his memory, and the natural world. However, that conversation was abruptly cut short the following year when Young contracted the H1N1 virus, which put him in a coma for over a week. Russell Young nearly died. When he regained consciousness, he had to learn to read and write again, and he had forgotten the color green. When one of his children brought him a book of animals, he could hardly believe that polar bears actually existed on our planet.
What followed from Russell Young’s illness is the maturation of this conversation and the preoccupation with a central dilemma: the precise edge where youthful wonder turns to violent truth. In his first series of paintings after surviving his illness, Young pushed canvases into pools of red shellac, letting the resin drip, smear, and splatter like wounds. In Helter Skelter, he repeatedly silkscreened images from the Rolling Stones’ Free Concert at Altamont to abstraction, reproducing the infernal, disorienting frenzy that ended with the death of Meredith Hunter and the era of free love altogether. The counterculture of Young’s youth, once a source of inspiration, was now also a source of trauma. In its wake, he even left his own boot prints. A year later, in his series Only Anarchists are Pretty, Russell Young cut out pornographic images of bound women and arranged them like the brutal machinations of a mechanic lining the walls of his garage with pin-ups. These crowded arrangements were given the names of the council seats in northern England he remembered, places like Thorntree and The Lache, which once threatened to trap him.
Russell Young’s ongoing series, The West, pierces these claustrophobic visions for more realms. The West continues to tap into our most primal instincts, as well as our grandest dreams. The series features curios, knickknacks, heirlooms, and fantasies of its own world built within the larger framework of American drama. The spaghetti westerns he watched in his youth, NASCAR racers before they were safely regulated, California girls, Hawaiian surf photography of the big waves of the ’70s, the Marlboro cowboy before he was commercialized into oblivion, Native American chiefs before they, too, were nearly driven into oblivion – all debut in Young’s quest to confront and question the idealization of American history. Lately, Young has been piecing together his silkscreens, reminiscent of the classic anamorphic widescreen of Western films, to pay homage and also expose the artificiality of our dreams. The breadth of this ever-expanding series is matched only by Young’s impulse to venture into the deserts, forests, and oceans of America to go as far west as possible.
Russell Young lives with his family in a house he designed and built, nestled in the lush foothills of Southern California. When his mother visited him once, lounging near the pool under the imported palms and glimpsing the sublime from there, she remarked that none of it was real. Young people often leave this “paradise that is not real” behind and rough it out in the wilderness. He might spend days outside, sleeping under the highway, or swim into the ocean to watch the moon rise, or ignore evacuation orders and watch wildfires lick the walls of his house. He returns with industrial-strength felt from railroad tracks or giant pieces of charcoal washed ashore from other fires to experiment with in the retrofitted airplane hangar he uses as a studio. He revels in the diesel-like smell of oil and enamel that reminds him of the London Underground. Russell Young soaks his work in salt water to watch it rust. He strains so physically, tearing apart everything that is not real to expose himself.
Recently, Russell Young has begun to present his latest body of work, which similarly draws from his childhood, but also from a quieter strain of his usual efforts. Set in a melancholy blue, the silkscreens in one series feature turn-of-the-century photographs of animals that, if not already, will soon be extinct. In another, he enlarges paintings of flowers from the Dutch Golden Age to highlight the impossibilities of their unseasonal arrangements and hidden messages. Both the animals and the flowers are reminiscent of an earlier boy, when he was awestruck by things that seemed unattainable and would do anything to grasp their truth. He is interested in secrets, the ones we keep, the ones we share, and the ones we don’t want to be confronted with. A rose petal, on closer inspection, might be full of holes.
It is these holes that Russell Young’s work illuminates. The holes of trauma, of carnal desire, of memory and history. Through them he allows us to see vistas. In these vistas there are no expectations, no rules. He roams wherever he wants, always looking for a space where he can be free, experiment, investigate life and death. These are lands from which he resurrects dead dreams and designs alternative dreams. They are lands in which invented realities are spun out of the earnest hope of reinventing ourselves and ourselves.
Russell Young’s works have now passed through all the world’s major auction houses, including Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips.
RUSSELL YOUNG – SUPERSTAR
Modern Art Museum, Shanghai
FOREVER YOUNG: A Retrospective
Polk Museum of Art, Lakeland, FL
RUSSELL YOUNG: A Retrospective
Goss-Michael Foundation, Dallas
Albertina Museum, Vienna
Carlo Ancelotti, Madrid
Jennifer Aniston, Los Angeles
Kate Beckinsale, Los Angeles
The Benetton Foundation, Treviso, Italy
David Bowie, New York
The Core Club, New York
Cornell Art Museum, Florida
Beth DeWoody, New York
Drake, Hidden Hills, California
Kirsten Dunst, Los Angeles
The Getty Collection, Los Angeles
Goss-Michael Foundation, Dallas
Laurence Graff, New York
David Hockney, Los Angeles
Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, Istanbul
Marc Jacobs, New York
Kris Jenner, Los Angeles
Angelina Jolie, Los Angeles
Khloe Kardashian, Los Angeles
Floyd Mayweather, Las Vegas
The Mint Museum, Charlotte, North Carolina
Mohammed VI of Morocco, Rabat
The Estate of Marilyn Monroe, New York
Kate Moss, London
Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow
Elon Musk, Los Angeles
Mark Zuckerberg, Palo Alto
Sharon Osbourne, Los Angeles
John Paulson, New York
Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece, Athens
Joaquin Phoenix, Los Angeles
Brad Pitt, Los Angeles
The Polk Museum of Art, Florida
The Qatari Royal Family, Doha
Lou Reed, New York
Aby Rosen, New York
The Saatchi Collection, London
Paul Smith, London
Daisy Soros, New York
Elizabeth Taylor, Los Angeles
Kanye West, Los Angeles
White House Collection, Washington, DC