Russell Young Biography
Russell Young was born in 1959, to an unwed teenage mother and into the cold, wet, isolation of Northern England. He spent his first months passed from foster care, to a nunnery and at four months, was adopted by Ken and Lesley Young. The new family migrated across the north. From an early age Young felt an outsider in this dark world. He was powerfully drawn to the idealized drama and warm comfort of the American dream. Everything American he came in contact with represented freedom, possibility and sun. Young hated school and by the age of 14 often skipped out entirely. He often escaped to the football terraces with his father. He loved the chants and tough terrace culture. As many northern youths, he was born ripe into the Sex Pistols, Joy Division, New Order and the northern soul of the Wigan Casino.
He began to take photographs. He landed at the Chester Art College where he studied photography, film and graphic design under Jack Straw, who shaped Young's early development, presenting a never imagined path forward. His parents divorced. He continued on to Exeter Art College and to London where he couldn’t find a job. After months on the streets he began assisting photographer, Christos Raftopoulos. Raftopoulos, an aesthete, took him under his wing and taught him to see a new world of light and sharp detail. Raftopoulos pushed Young to take on projects of his own. He started at the live club shows of Bauhaus, R.E.M. and the Smiths. The photographs were exquisite and he quickly picked up work for magazines and eventually began sessions for the record companies. In 1986, he shot the 'Faith' sleeve for George Michael, launching him towards America and opportunity. He did portraits of Morrissey, Bjork, Springsteen, Dylan, New Order, Diana Ross, Paul Newman and many other celebrities. He began to direct music videos; exactly one hundred during the glory days of MTV.
In 1992, Young moved to Hollywood. He met Finola Hughes, they married and life took shape for him in America. His career as a photographer and music video director was flourishing. He carved out the time and began to paint seriously. Young and Hughes moved to New York. In September 2000, he'd grown frustrated by the limits of the photograph and the commercial world around it. Hughes was seven months pregnant with their first son. He felt frozen and dead as a creative person. He went to Tuscany and he sat on a hill above a farm to meditate on becoming an artist.
Young returned to New York and rented a studio in Brooklyn and began a series of experiments he called, 'Combine Paintings'. He also started what he believed were clearly extensions of photography. He begins his series of 'Pig Portraits'. Young had spent his photographic career doing the portraits of celebrities. He never felt he'd captured his subject as true and as powerfully as these new works. The answers to the questions he had of himself were in fact playing out in the 'Pig Portraits'. They attacked the nature of photography, portraiture and prickly nature of celebrity itself.
In 2003 he showed his first series of 'Pig Portraits' in Los Angeles. He was now a painter, an artist. The family moved back to California and built a house on the coast nea Los Angeles. Young built a studio on the compound and began working alone, focusing on the development of ideas and flying east to New York to work with his master printer and team.
Young pressed himself into this new method of action by reflection, using its forced structure to allow the freedom to follow streams of thought that would normally be cast aside, in haste. This lead to powerful new work, eclectic in scope, never afraid to turn on itself. In 2007, he showed his Fame + Shame paintings in London. They were an exorcism, a gritty, bare 'pop-art cocktail' of America, seen through the eyes of the young man from the north of England, leading one through the glamour and glory to brutal chaos, brooding and doubt. Crying out, "shelve your western plans!"
Young began to use diamond dust in 2007, pressing the crystals into the enamel of the paintings. He was drawn to the opulence of the light shimmering off the multi-faceted glass. He hung the paintings from the trees of his California garden. At night the moon shone blue on the crystals. The images were lost in the abstract flicker only to once again, reclaim their place. In the monochrome, we recognize Marilyn Crying and Kurt Cobain, then the light falls on the diamonds and the choir sings. He called them "Dirty Pretty Things" and seemed to assault the idea of even looking at pictures, turning the experience into chewing bubble gum.
In 2009 he began the "American Envy" paintings, revisiting some of his most iconic social signifiers, but going deeper into the eye of the storm, brilliantly walking us down the spiraling vortex of rebellion, hope, violence and madness towards the collision of dream and sacrifice. Elvis, JFK and Charles Manson are the chaperons.
Russell Young became very ill and almost died in 2010. He endured an eight-day coma, pneumonia and ARDS; all induced by the H1N1 virus. His doctors and loved ones were skeptical of recovery. After a three-month stay in the hospital, Young emerged from his near-death experience with severe memory loss and an incredibly weak body. During his long recovery, he began to examine his life and his surroundings in a whole new way. He said, “I left the hospital and I had to learn to breath, write, draw, think, and walk for the second time in my life.”
During this process of recovery, Young began to explore the nature of trauma and its effect on both the individual and cultural psyche. Embracing and utilizing a new more visceral and animalistic process he attacks and dissects the imagery within the canvas.
2011 forced a seminal shift in his work. He began to work free from the domestication of art, like a feral boy, filled with a new, rough energy of violence, sex and power. First, in his magnificent, "Helter Skelter" paintings he
danced with this energy. He cast away a century of ‘modern pictures’ and produced a stunning series, where we don’t look from afar but are surrounded in chaos and mayhem. These are not pictures of the murder of Meredith Hunter at Altamont; they used the picture itself, as the brush to paint the ‘Helter Skelter’.
With his next series, "Only Anarchists Are Pretty", Young forced shift again, harder. In an act of Burroughs, he ‘cuts up’ the glossy files of bound women and presses them onto large, unimaginable orgies of claustrophobic assemblage. With enormous screens, he prints each into her place; episode in multitude, again and again. The sultry, luscious black enamel is made rough and dirty by the act. The room has gotten smaller; we are surrounded by hard, dark, unapologetic fantasy. The women ask if they are art. The room fills with the symphonic screams of pleasure both beautiful and brutal. The paintings are named for the council flats of Northern England; Nant Peris, The Gorbals, Thorntree. Their names brutally twist the paintings from sex to the screams of children, fighting for a way out of the dark. Akin to Joy Division, a name taken from the Nazi camp whorehouse, where the officers found pleasure in their prize.
Young continues to challenge and reinvent himself using bold, forceful checks and assaults on his own systems to find new ways of expression. He uses themes, still with him from boyhood, to express feelings of isolation, alienation, entrapment and the marginalized dreams of an outsider fighting for a way into the light. His work has been shown
in London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Tokyo, Singapore, New York, Detroit, Miami and Los Angeles.
Russell Young lives and works on the California coast and in Brooklyn, New York.