Originally from Portsmouth, but now living in North London, young writer and story teller Wesley Cooke recently submitted this short story to us and we couldn’t wait to show you guys! Enjoy!
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By Wesley Cooke
Here we are at The Hepworth Wakefield. It’s the eve of the opening of what is arguably one of the most significant exhibitions in the history of British Art. Now, unless you’ve spent the last eighteen months spelunking in Easegill, it’s hard to imagine a human being that hasn’t at some point been blown a bit by the cultural hurricane that is Leroy MacGuffin.
The colossal 20ft x 20ft cibachrome print behind me is the latest work from the man dubbed ‘The Finsbury Park Fauve’. This prodigious image of a voluptuous, copiously curved Venus of Lespugue-like figurine, so busty & fat-bottomed she makes Kim Kardashian’s famous rear-end selfie look like the snapshot of an ironing board with a face. This most tactile of talismans, tenderly cocooned in the frail, haggard & dishpan hands of an elderly woman, is only a thimbleful of the visceral outpourings from the prolific ‘Art Brute’. You would be forgiven for thinking of this exhibition as a direct response, a retaliation to the frenzied attacks & death threats accrued from a legion of loyalists & feminists alike after STOP, THIEF!; the 10ft x 10ft gelatin silver print of Queen Elizabeth II, in which he’s manipulated the image of the most reproduced face in the history of humankind to look like some crazed character from an early German expressionist film, as well as his YouTube channel Keep your friends close & your enemies pregnant hitting the headlines. Gratuitously anarchic? Maybe. However, having spent a total of six of his 37 years at Her Majesty’s pleasure, I think it’s fair to say that no matter what creative endeavor he’s involved in, past personal experience is invariably at the core of MacGuffin’s work. From his early impasto portraits, collectively known as Parrots in hoodies – six furiously sculpted life-size head shots that seem to grimace, sneer or wink depending on both the angle one encounters them & whatever the apparent mood of the individual painting at that particular time of day – to Snakes & Ladders, his unflinching, reckless & at times downright harrowing street photography series; a more fly-in-the-way than on-the-wall collection made up of one thousand or so Polaroid’s depicting the nightlife of anonymous London stairwells. He was recently interviewed by VOICE Magazine for an article entitled ‘The Man Who Won’t Sell to Saatchi’ & given ample opportunity to defend himself against his ever-growing army of detractors, to these questions he simply answered ‘No comment’ like some bit part badly from an episode of The Bill. In fact, the only reasoned response given was when eventually asked why he will not allow the self-confessed ‘Artoholic’ Charles Saatchi to own any of his work, the rather flippant remark ‘My Mum’s a big fan of Nigella’ brought the non-interview to an awkward end. So, who is this Photographer, this Painter, this Poet? What are the motives of the man who turned down the Turner Prize? What is the message behind his work? Before we look deeper into any kind of narrative or symbolism in his art, we must first learn his language & the characters in which it is written.
It’s 1977 – Year of the Pot Noodle. Punk is at its peak, Elvis Presley (the King) is dead, long live the Queen on her Silver Jubilee! – The Andover Estate, Finsbury Park, birthplace of MacGuffin. Only a stone’s throw or spitting distance from the childhood stomping grounds of one Mr John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols. A fact that is made all the more pertinent as MacGuffin would also go on to be discussed in the Houses of Parliament as a traitor under the Treason Act. Next to nothing is known of his early years, born the youngest of two boys, wending his way through the great sausage factory of State school without any fuss. What we can be certain of, what is as concrete as the slabs that once paved the infamous & now mythical labyrinthine maze of interconnecting back alleys, paths & thoroughfares of the Andover Estate, is the record of MacGuffin’s first artistic impulse. It was in early September of 1995, following the death of his brother while in police custody that he chose the stretcher bond brickwork of the estate for his canvas. Spraying almost every wall, every flank, every surface with the NWA song title & slogan ‘F*CK THE POLICE’ – he is caught red-handed & sentenced to twenty months in prison – Leroy MacGuffin the artist is born.
Here is the first known painting by MacGuffin dated four months into his stay at HMP Rochester – an A3 sheet of canvas paper, truncated & divided into four equal squares of varying shades of brown. Working clockwise it runs from Fawn bleeding into Fallow, Lion into Burnt Umber. This painting is abstraction in its purest form, perhaps an intuitive Genius loci inspired representation of the Four Temperaments; Choleric, Melancholic, Sanguine & Phlegmatic – this painting is the artist’s one & only self-portrait. We know it to be a self-portrait for it says so on the reverse, written in his own erratic & inimitable cursive along with the date & dedication to the enigmatically named Miss Wherewithal (it is worth noting that there is no record of any art program at HMP Rochester at this time, nor any person of that name either visiting or working there). He would go on to create & dedicate another work to this mysterious muse eight months later upon his release. It appears the very first thing he did when returning home was to visit the local Boots store on Holloway Rd & purchase two disposable cameras; he then took fifty-four intimate, extreme close-ups, capturing every inch of her naked form, returning immediately to the store & having them developed. These photographs would stay sealed, along with both receipts, only to see the light of day for this exhibition, for which he has made a Girl with Mandolin-esque portrait & I’m sure if old El Rey were alive to see this cubist collage he would approve, viewing it as a nod of appreciation rather than an act of appropriation. MacGuffin’s return to the outside world is short-lived, just shy of three months to the day of his release from prison he is caught in the act of replacing the local CCTV cameras with demijohns crammed with sheep eyes. For this act of protest art/vandalism he is sentenced to four more years imprisonment.
He would go on to serve the entirety of the sentence plus an additional twelve months due to his persistent self-tattooing; with the use of sewing needles & ink derived from the ash of burnt Bible pages mixed with his own spit the artist transformed his legs, arms & torso into one long indecipherable rebus – this time he is sent to HMP Aylesbury where they did have an art program. It was here that he penned the autobiographical long poem Curriculum Vitae; this chronology of substance abuse hurtles down an astral plane existing somewhere between Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception & Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, the young man’s tales of shamanic escapism are what you’d imagine Carlos Castaneda’s writing would’ve been like had he grown up on a North London council estate throughout the eighties & early nineties. While at Aylesbury & under the benevolent supervision of a Mr Bellamy, MacGuffin would create over a hundred paintings together with one of his most renowned & talked about works, the explicit piece entitled Inside Out; a pair of stained prison issue Y-fronts worn by the artist & displayed in a bell jar (this work predates Tracey Emin’s My Bed by almost a year & is rumored to now be in her possession).
It has been said by many that MacGuffin’s best work was borne of his time behind bars, while there are others who refuse to believe he is not part of the Art establishment & that his incarceration & ‘underclass persona’ is nothing but a calculated ruse. It seems the more successful & well-known MacGuffin is the more of a magnet for malign critics & cranks he becomes, but this is of no moment & were there any truth in these outrageous rumors & speculations it doesn’t alter the limitless scope of the artist’s imagination. Take the centerpiece of this latest exhibition as an example, a personal favourite that I shall leave you with (this untitled work is what you might get if you teamed up Harry Houdini with Alfred Hitchcock & commissioned them to create a fairground Ghost Train ride in a phone box). Stepping into the booth you are at once plunged into a claustrophobic kind of cosmic void. The deep unmistakable throbbing bass of a heartbeat begins to thump & as one feebly attempts acclimation to the sound & the pitch-dark, a pinhole of light appears in front of you. Compelled to take a peek your eye is met with the image of what can only be described as a skin balloon – far too close for comfort, far too close to see its circumference – one is hypnotized by the sight & the sound of the balloon as it inflates in time with the beating heart. Quickening, ever-expanding. Getting faster, louder. You want to take your eye away but you can’t help but keep on looking. The noise is almost deafening. Just as you sense this balloon made from skin is about to pop, your face tightening & your entire body tensing as you brace yourself for this thing tearing apart with unimaginable force. . . . . . . the booth is flooded by a blinding light & it’s all over.