Forever Young: A Retrospective Essay

Russell Young,  Marilyn Glamour , 2010, Screenprint Acrylic Paint and Diamond Dust on Linen, 37 x 29 inches.

Russell Young, Marilyn Glamour, 2010, Screenprint Acrylic Paint and Diamond Dust on Linen, 37 x 29 inches.

Born in 1959 in Northern England, Russell Young studied photography, film and graphic design at Chester Art College. He later landed a career as a professional photographer in the entertainment industry. For 20 years, Young photographed such celebrities as Diana Ross, Paul Newman, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. He also made a name for himself in film, directing more than 100 music videos for MTV. As creative decisions became increasingly made by corporate executives, Young grew distressed with the industry and decided to break away and focus entirely on his own creative work. He would later explain his work as addressing the theme of “fame and shame.”

Young first gained attention from the world of fine art in 2003 with his series Pig Portraits. These life-sized vibrant representations of celebrity mugshots presented both sides of American celebrity. High-profile figures, generally considered invincible, were recast as vulnerable felons. Young had stripped away their pop status and replaced it with a more human identity, fracturing the conventional celebrity portrait – a convention he had helped proliferate years earlier.

In series that followed, Young continued his critique of American celebrity; Fame + Shame, Rebel Rebel, Shoplifters of the World Unite, Dirty Pretty Things, Bankrobber, American Envy, and Only Anarchists are Pretty represented his suspicions about the validity of fame and popular culture. In these series, he merged the worlds of fame and affliction, transforming celebrity into a critique of counterfeit culture. This is perhaps best demonstrated by Young’s repurposed likeness of Marilyn Monroe. For decades, her glamorous and popular lifestyle was synonymous with superficial American values. Fame, sex, wealth and beauty are still associated with the blond icon, despite what may have been Monroe’s life away from stardom. In the fine art world, Marilyn Monroe became known as Andy Warhol’s muse; the superficiality of her public life embodied Warhol’s fascination with American commodity and notoriety. For the same reasons, she embodied everything Young seeks to criticize. But, unlike Warhol, who celebrated the artificial and elevated the mundane, Young dismantles the presumed positivity of what we consider popular culture and introduces the cold and tragic realization that the camera cannot capture everything. Young’s Marilyn often breaks with character, permitting us to glimpse her tragedy. His objective is to counter Warhol by admonishing our cultural obsessions with simulation and propaganda.

A crucial characteristic of Young’s portraiture is his signature use of diamond dust. He began using diamond dust in 2007, pressing it directly into the enameled surfaces of his printed portraits. The glittering and tactile surface may at first seem contradictory to his dismantling of fame, but the diamond dust acts as a veil that separates viewers (the consumers) and those who are portrayed (the consumed). We are attracted to what the diamond dust represents: luxury, riches and notoriety. But, the physical characteristics of the diamond dust – its sharpness and hardness – contrast the sensibilities of those portrayed just beyond its shimmer.

This contrast is especially powerful in Young’s portraits of Native American Indian chiefs. Although they bear no association with modern American celebrity, such portrayals of Native Americans have been ironically used to romanticize American heritage. The 19th century American displacement of native American tribes during western expansion was framed with the gilded ideals of colonialism. Manifest Destiny, the idea that America was destined to stretch from coast to coast, sparked a genocide of hundreds of Native American tribes and endangered hundreds of others. Young re-presents this idea of cultural expansion and enforcement. In these portraits, the diamond dust signifies something sinister; the stark contrast between the sacred Native American values represented by the chiefs and the modern material affluence represented by diamond dust is disturbing. Similar to Young’s other works, these portraits retain the separation of reality and perception. Yet, unlike his portraits of Hollywood celebrities, his depictions of Native Americans hit us a bit deeper in the gut.

Since shifting his focus to his own creative work in 2000, Russell Young has gained attention from galleries and collectors from around the world. His prints and paintings have been shown at numerous galleries in London, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, Singapore, New York, Detroit, Miami and Los Angeles. He is also included in such acclaimed collections as those belonging to Liz Taylor, Brad Pitt, The Saatchi Collection, President Barack Obama, David Bowie, The Estate of Marilyn Monroe and Polk Museum of Art.