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Inside Russell Young’s Dreamland

Hendrix wild thing triptych (wild white) 2023. russell young.

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By The Sybarite Team on 18th January 2024

As British-born artist, Russell Young's latest exhibition Dreamland draws to a close at Maddox Gallery, Berkley Street, The Sybarite sits down with the artist to discuss his creative process.

British-born, California-based artist Russell Young has long been fascinated by celebrity culture and the disintegration of the 'American Dream'. His saturated paintings, depicting everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Kate Moss, by way of The Beatles and Elvis Presley, are currently gracing the walls of Maddox Gallery's latest outpost on Mayfair's Berkeley Square. We sat down with Young to discuss his key inspirations and what sets this body of work apart.

What's your earliest memory that cemented your ambition to pursue a career in art?

I was three, it would have been Christmas 1962, at my posh aunt’s house. There was this forest behind it, and all these trees had lost their leaves and I could just see these incredible shapes, all sort of going up to the sky. All Christmas long, I sat drawing these ‘scary’ trees. They were very black and white, and abstract. So even at this early age, I'm not shading all this beautiful stuff. But I'm creating these very graphic drawings.

You live in California now. Having spent a childhood in Northern England, what sparked your move from the UK to the US?

I was born in Yorkshire in a foster home, then I went to a nunnery for six months in Cumbria before being adopted. I migrated all around Northern England during my early years. From an early age, perhaps eight, whenever we saw anything in California with palm trees and swimming pools and surfing, I would say to my Dad, why don’t we live there?  By 1991, I had lived in London for a decade, photographing the likes of  George Michael and Dylan Springsteen and I directed 100s of music videos. It rained every day of June 1991, and I think that was the clincher to make the move.

Mick Jagger
Mick Jagger

Do you think your British background gives you a unique perspective of American culture?

My British background allows me to look at American culture almost as a voyeur. We are influenced very much in the UK by American culture. I mean the first time I landed in Miami, it was all so familiar. It was as if my body had inhaled it and taken in the American culture and the way everything looked. I had always been fascinated with Woodstock and I would listen to Jimi Hendrix at 10 years old.

Your work centres around the cult of celebrity. What is it about celebrity that captivates and inspires you?

I deal with fame and shame in a sense. For example, if you take Marilyn Monroe: she’s fabulous, the camera loves her, the world loves her, and she soars to these heights. But with that comes an isolation, and no human being is really prepared for that. Probably my most well known painting is ‘Marilyn Crying’. It depicts Marilyn, when she has come out of the divorce court with Joe DiMaggio, she's surrounded by all these paparazzi, she's being hassled. And what I did with that image was I focused in on maybe 10% of the image and honed in on this beautiful woman, so there is this amazing vulnerability to her. It’s emotional yet beautiful at the same time. And, to me, that's almost like the perfect storm.

Marilyn Crying
Marilyn Crying

What did you want to achieve with Dreamland at the Maddox Gallery?

I have a photographic memory; 1000s of images burned into my mind. I'm able to store ridiculous amounts of images and information in my head. And with Dreamland, at the Maddox Gallery, Mayfair, I knew I wanted something pretty spectacular, pretty refined, pretty sophisticated, and to create a whole body of unique paintings. 

Can you describe your creative process?

I spend $100,000s every year, buying rights to imagery and working with lawyers. Honing the image, knowing the image and finding the image, is a process. I then take that to my master printer in New York, or go back to my California studio to create the paintings. I always crop the image in some way or another, we then will play with light, dark and shade and we burn a screen. Then it comes to colour. I spent decades collecting pigments from all over the world. I work with this fantastic man in Florence whose family art shop goes back 300 years. He has a basement that I believe I'm the only artist allowed in. But I have to go there for him to give me some of the pigments. So we look at pigments for days, we mix a few colours. And then I will bring them back to California where I like to mix all my colours, just because of the light and the radiance and the energy it creates. It's like an alchemy, it's like magic.

Hendrix Wild Thing
Hendrix Wild Thing

Is there a point of difference for the Dreamland exhibition?

We put diamond dust on the paintings in Dreamland. I wanted to create this sculptural three dimensional element to my paintings. I wanted this almost luxurious veil for these celebrities to sort of envelope them by the diamond dust.

Your work explores the dark side of fame, what feeling do you want to inspire in your audience?

At the opening of Dreamland, there were multiple people walking around and they were smiling with their eyes. And that's all I need: to see people connecting. I love to see people look at my paintings, have this emotion, and it's just really humbling to think that you've created something that gives people so much joy. 

Brigitte Bardot
Brigitte Bardot

Tell us more about the curation of celebrities depicted in Dreamland…

It is really informed by my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s. Most of my work exists from that time period. My father exposed me to the Rolling Stones. I mean, if you think of the music that came out of England: The Beatles and The Stones, Hendrix has come to London and he explodes. There are all these fabulous movies circulating,  featuring Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. My father introduced me to all these characters, he educated me on fabulous films and music. He immersed me in celebrity and fame. 

It sounds like the American Dream rubbed off on you from such a young age…

Oh, absolutely. Every time you stepped out of the house, it was always wet and grey, not bright and sunny like London. London was more exotic than the South of France or California when growing up in northern England.

Outside of art, how do you spend your free time and do you have any other passions?

I surf in the Californian water, I have to go out on my own, I just have to concentrate. I just have to be in that moment. I like the isolation of an artist, the COVID pandemic in a sense was really reaffirming for that. I did some spectacular abstract paintings which next year I'm probably going to find a place to show, they are pretty special.

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