Royal Young is currently living in his grandparents’ attic in Long Island. While that may not sound like the most inspiring place for a 30-year-old writer and now painter (especially one who’s spent almost his entire life living in the city) the journalist and author of Fame Shark seems to be loving it. “New York City sucks, let’s be real,” he laughed. Royal only recently admitted defeat, something he still seems to have a hard time believing. Nevertheless, his early retirement has been a productive one as evidenced by a series large, colorful paintings, currently on view at Figureworks gallery in Williamsburg as part of Lush Doom.
Royal and I convened at his favorite Dominican restaurant on the Lower East Side last Friday, located three blocks away from where he grew up and the building where his parents still live. A tour group corralled outside, blocking the doorway as if Castillo de Jagua was less a bustling diner and more a museum dedicated to the Downtown Days of yesteryear that just happens to give out free samples of tostones.
“I think there’s this myth about New York that you have to be here to be creatively relevant. I don’t think that’s true, especially now,” Royal told me.
One year ago, Royal was living just blocks away from here. “I was just so uninspired by the city– it’s just rich people eating brunch with their rich friends and I find it very unappealing,” he admitted.
So he made a brash decision and gave up his apartment on Henry Street. “I was like, ‘Let’s just try this out, this is gonna be like Grey Gardens-crazy but let’s do it,” he recalled. “I’m at a point where I still find the suburbs bizarre and interesting and unique because I never experienced that as a kid, but mostly I’m just smoking pot in the attic and painting.”
I came to find out that I’m not the first journalist Royal’s met up with at this restaurant, which really does seem like a throwback to another era. “I take everybody here. I took Jerry Stahl here when he was in town and he got the chicken soup and he was like, ‘This is better than heroin.'”
Royal looked like he was in need of something similar. He sat slump-shouldered, leaning against the wall while I picked at slices of avocado and those plantains. “I’m pretty hungover,” he admitted.
But Royal’s a champ. He hardly looked phased by his rather dehydrated state, which he addressed with a Diet Coke and zero solid food stuffs (“Yo soy flaca,” he told the waitress with a pout) and managed still to be bubbly, talkative, and glamorous in a both betchy and grungy way, as only born-and-bred New York City kids seem capable of exuding.
“Oh fuck you…” he mumbled, looking down at his phone. “Sorry, it’s been a stressful week.”
Hangover City isn’t exactly unchartered territory for Royal. As is well documented in Fame Shark, Royal sped through an alcohol-fueled teenagehood at the visual and performing arts-centric LaGuardia High School back when he was Hazak Brozgold (a name he gave up because people couldn’t not screw it up), before spending one miserable year at Bennington College in Vermont (“an artistic circle jerk in the middle of nowhere”).
His early 20s were split between Hunter College, the New School, and the downtown cool kid scene as Royal worked as a writer at Interview magazine and an indie movie actor, but dedicated much of his existence to being a “fuck up.” In short, those were his days of being wild. Back then Royal’s mantra was “I’m going to rage till I fucking die,” he recalled.
While he did demonstrate interest in painting back in high school, he said, “I was huffing turpentine in the gallery storage room, like not really taking it seriously and not appreciating what I was learning.”
But things have changed dramatically. “In the past year I’ve been much more conscious of allowing myself quiet time– alone, sober, solitary time– to focus on writing, painting, or hanging out with friends and not having to have 50 beers while doing it,” he explained.
Though he’s hung up his vomit-soaked party pants for the time being, it’s not as if Royal has dried up completely. “I’ve always been more of an armchair drinker,” he admitted.
And now that he’s living that storied, enviable life without New York City rent, Royal’s got plenty of time to put up his feet — butt nestled into what’s easy to imagine is a faded La-Z-Boy recliner — with a glass, or two, of tequila on the rocks. Though Royal denies he’s being pampered. It’s more of a two-way street. “I cook dinner for my grandparents, they’re like my kids,” he laughed. The housemates trade off acting like teenagers. “My grandparents are also gone a lot. They travel a lot and they have a pool. My friends will come out, so we have wild times when they’re not there.”
But as to be expected for a city kid, the experience is still somewhat surreal. “I feel a little crazy there sometimes, a little isolated, but I also think it’s enabled me to get back in touch with a creative part of myself,” Royal explained. “When I was in the city I was so busy writing for a million places and going to events and, you know, just getting caught up in that world.”
It might seem strange that living in the suburbs has inspired Royal to create paintings with a deep nod to Old Hollywood noir, ’60s psychedelia, and pre-Internet pop culture. “I’ll draw from old movie posters, vintage Playboys, or old surreal pop art,” he explained. “I certainly believe all good art is plagiarism to a degree.”
But there’s also something so Mad Men about his paintings, a sense of post-war American dreaming the suburbs are imbued with. Royal’s work is what Sally Draper (rather than Don) might paint once she’d grown out of her acid-dropping phase and returned from a stint in the Haight. There’s a sense of party-worn weariness here, but at the same time there are fresh memories of decadence at the end of its rope.
Since Royal’s writing is so self-referential, I wondered if (besides the ecstatic experience of painting itself) his paintings reflect Royal’s own life. “Definitely there’s a lot of smoking in my paintings and there’s a lot of darkness that I put in there,” he said, searching for answers. “I think there’s a lot of defiance in the work and a way of owning my own fantasies and loss and longing. I certainly find that some of the faces I end up painting remind me of people I’ve loved, or people in my life– whether that’s subconscious or not.”
Speaking with Royal one almost immediately understands that he’s not just an open guy and unafraid to lay it all out there — he’s superbly good at analyzing himself, even before you get the chance to do so. There’s a reason for this hyper-self awareness. Royal’s father is a therapist and his mother a neuropsychologist. “They’re both teetotalers,” he explained. “And I think that’s why I started drinking so heavily — it was a way more for me to be in a separate world, one that they couldn’t enter.”
Despite this typical rebellion against one’s parents, Royal has a knack for reverse engineering you as a therapist, by making you feel as if he’s admitting these things to you for the first time. But he’s not talking at you, he seems genuinely interested in your response and I instantly felt like we were old friends.
That said, he definitely lives up to his “fame shark” reputation. Despite the years of hard partying, he explained, “being successful creatively is my biggest addiction and anything that gets in the way of that is just not interesting to me.”
While Royal has dedicated most of his adult life to writing, his return to painting has allowed him to explore an entirely different side of his creative self. “Because I’ve been a journalist for seven years, I believe so strongly in editing, but sometimes that can be frustrating because it can take away the immediacy of creating something,” he explained. “With painting, because I’m doing it alone in an attic in Long Island for myself, I just don’t care about editing any of it. It’s much more thrilling in that way, I think it comes from a purer place.”
And the result does feel fast and explosive in many ways. The paintings are made up of smoothly applied, hyper-saturated colors, made bolder by flatness achieved from Royal’s choice to paint on plexiglass rather than canvas. The “bright-as-fuck colors,” Royal admits, are often “straight out of the tube.” The unadulterated color, the lack of watered down-ness, adds to the paintings’ sense of purity.
“I think spending the winter in Panama writing and being in this tropical, over-saturated, bright climate hugely inspired me,” Royal explained. “Also, I grew up on the Lower East Side where it was covered in Chico murals and graffiti and prostitutes in neon spandex and shit, so it was just a very loud, visually alive place.”
That colorful inspiration, Royal says, is gone for the most part. “I don’t think it’s a nurturing place for young, creative people anymore. I don’t think it’s artistically that interesting or engaging anymore […] And that doesn’t come from a place of nostalgia or regret. It’s fine. The people who have it now can have it, I’m done with it.”
Sure, the Lower East Side was a much more vibrant place 20-some years ago, but as Royal admits, it could also be a place of darkness. “You know, the neighborhood was so bad and the building had been a shooting gallery and they had to completely clean out mounds of hypodermic needles and garbage,” he recalled. “But my dad said, ‘I’m an artist and [buying this building] is the best investment I’m ever gonna make,’ and everyone was like, ‘You’re nuts. You’re going to raise your kids in the ghetto–‘ in the ghetto that my grandparents, first-generation immigrants, fought so hard to get out of, too.”
This could be the source of twisted darkness– what makes the show’s title Lush Doom so apt– present below the surface in Royal’s paintings. “I think my paintings are really pop and fun, but people say they’re pretty dark,” he laughed. “Somehow I think they’re right and I’m wrong.”
But there’s another clue. The show is dedicated to Royal’s friend and mentor Cathrine Westergaard, a fashion photographer and artist who encouraged Royal to pursue painting and helped him score the show at Figureworks. “Last year she was diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer and she died in June after a really horrifying and sad winter of being with her. I watched her die,” Royal said. “I feel like she inspired me so much– her fashion work was just so vivid and colorful and gritty and provocative.”
But her death also inspired Royal, getting him to think a lot about the best way to go about life. “I don’t think all of your meals should be in liquid form– people now are addicted to staying alive– I mean, you die when you die. Seeing someone die so young, that was brought home to me so much in the past year,” he explained. “I just think you should live your life in a larger and more generous way. I think that’s where the ‘Lush Doom’ comes in, it’s about this damned, lost generation, where everybody was still smoking and they didn’t have the foresight or the fanatical self-interest in their own health, which I find very bizarre. I’m not telling everyone to go shoot heroin, or whatever, but I think a little bit of self-destruction is healthy.”
Lush Doom is on view at Figureworks gallery at 168 North 6th Street in Williamsburg from now until October 9th.