Maddox’s Artistic Director, Maeve Doyle, speaks to British-American artist Russell Young about how the cult of celebrity led him to create the electrifying body of work currently on display at Maddox Gallery in Gstaad. Aptly named The Glamour Game, Young’s first solo show with Maddox reveals a relentless desire to chronicle the seductive sparkle of celebrity and inspire conversation about the darker side of fame.
Maeve Doyle: Your bold, colourful prints of ill-fated celebrities like Elvis and Marilyn Monroe are glittering and abrasive. What is it about the nature of celebrity that first captured your attention Russell?
Russell Young: As a child, my father, through movies, introduced me to the concept of heroes, whether it was Batman, Superman or Brigitte Bardot. Growing up in the North of England in the late 60s and early 70s, where the footballer George Best was really the only hero, I began to discover this great cast of characters, both glamorous and beautiful and ugly and mean, that offered me escapism. Films opened my eyes to somewhere more interesting, more intellectual, and more fun.
MD: The American Dream inspired the characters in The Glamour Game. Does the idea that if you work hard and commit to something you can change your life still exist?
RY: Absolutely. You can still try to achieve it, but you can’t ignore the dark side, which has always been there. I’m drawn to the wonderful, glamorous, idyllic culture, of love and peace, of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis – the great cast of characters in The Glamour Game. And then there is the underbelly of crime and violence in America. It’s chaotic, but it’s beautiful – that’s what fascinates me.
RUSSELL YOUNG, MARILYN PORTRAIT CALIFORNIA, 2014
MD: Let’s talk about the image of Marilyn crying, which shows a different side to the actress, with cracks showing. When people look at your work, they often start the sentence with “I remember”. With Marilyn, I think the viewer will wonder at which point in her life was it taken. Was the press hounding her?
RY: People sometimes ask me if I took the photograph. I was three when she died! That’s how long ago we’re talking, but she continues to be so present. I worked very closely with the Marilyn Monroe estate on this image. She had just got divorced from Joe DiMaggio and the original photograph shows the paparazzi reporters all around her. My piece focuses on only 10% of the image, if not less, so it’s just her and her gestures. It’s the perfect mix of emotions for me to explore as an artist – she’s so beautiful, yet so sad.
MD: How do the characters in The Glamour Game fit into America as we know it now?
RY: These are, and always will be, aspirational characters. With social media, modern-day celebrities can’t do or say anything wrong. Today, everything is posted and talked about on Instagram, Twitter or TikTok – they live in this life that’s so immediate, so throwaway. With Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Elvis, Muhammad Ali, they just last, and last, and last.
MD: I’d like to talk a bit about your work The Pig Portraits, which I first saw in 2003. I think you were still taking photographs at the time. It was your first series of anti-celebrity headshots, I believe.
RY: Yes, I had stopped working as a photographer and fallen out of love with the music industry [Russell directed hundreds of music videos in the 1990s]. The music that was coming out in the late 90s was dreadful, so I decided I would go back to what the three-year-old me wanted to do, which was be an artist. I thought I might do abstracts or landscapes, but with so many years of looking at light, dark and shade, of dots per inch, I was drawn back into the photographic image. I decided that I would try screen printing all these wonderful police mugshots of famous people, and that became my first series. It was a reaction to my former career – I was paid to make people look handsome, cool and mean – and I thought, let’s make them look interesting and glamorous, which is a sensibility that is wired in me. It wasn’t intentional.
RUSSELL YOUNG, ELVIS HEARTBREAK HOTEL, 2022
MD: I’ve been stunned by your work for over a decade, and I think as someone who moved to the States from Britain, that you see America in a unique way. And I’m really glad that you point out the fickleness of fame and fortune, and how sometimes our dreams can actually turn into our nightmares.
RY: Thank you. I’ve really enjoyed our friendship over the years.
Listen to the full interview on Spotify: