High Art Head Shop from Civilized
This is not a bong story. Au contraire, this is a story about the fine art of the bong, which traces its roots to a 1929 painting by Belgian surrealist René Magritte, called, The Treachery of the Image. It’s a rather aggressive title to describe what would seem nothing more than a picture of a handsomely rendered smoking pipe, a sleek black ebony mouthpiece finished by a sweeping wooden handle, beneath which the artist inscribed the words: Ceci n’est pas unepipe. "This is not a pipe," wrote Magritte, meaning that the painting is merely a representation of a pipe, not a real pipe, itself, and with that unassuming image and sly commentary, the then-30-year-old painter forged a new path in art history, giving birth to the “meta-message.”
Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe, as the painting came to be known, caused a furor in the art world—then again, the 1930s were a furious, polarized time, wedged between The Great Depression and Second World War. In the US, Franklin Roosevelt signed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, officially commencing Prohibition; while in Montreal, the Contemporary Arts Society was established in 1939, immediately followed by the rise of Les Automatistes, the controversial disciples of André Breton, author of The Surrealist Manifesto.
If there was one city in the world that fully absorbed and integrated the era's two main cultural crosscurrents — surrealism’s explorations of the psyche and America’s puritanical prohibition of cannabis — it’s Montreal.
The French-speaking ville is renown for its eternally vibrant arts scene, having even been named a UNESCO City of Design in 2006. So it's fitting, nearly 90 years since The Treachery of the Image, and on the precipice of Canada's national legalization, that a young Montreal-based ceramic studio picked up René Magritte’s torch and went one meta-message further with their recent exhibit, called, naturally, Ceci N’est Pas Un Bong.
Given the juvenile, absurd and sometimes even hedonistic reputation of bongs, the idea of a gallery show dedicated entirely to the device might give one pause—and maybe a chuckle.
Founded by Richard Lawson and Kristian North in 2017, High Art Head Shop (HAHS) throws down the proverbial gauntlet in its title alone, boldly merging the notoriously dark, dingy atmosphere of a stoner's lair with fine art, worthy of a pristine museum setting. Yet, their studio is aptly named inasmuch as its title strikes a balance between art and cannabis, simultaneously elevating both by providing what has been lacking in weed’s highly consumptive, up-in-smoke culture: objects of permanence.
While it’s no coincidence that the foremost ceramicists working in cannabis today have formal training—Stonedware’s Ariel Zimman began her professional career with an BFA as a sculptor of large-scale works—this was among the first exhibits demanding the bong be taken seriously as a genuine work of art. To that end, HAHS pushed their one-of-a-kind, hand-crafted vessels a step further by collaborating on the show with a wide swath of Montreal’s established and up-and-coming painters. Removing consumption from the equation, the audience could view these collaborations on the basis of their artistic merits alone, dissecting the artists' decisions around color, line, movement, form, and technique, like whether to go for a crackle finish, glaze, or underglaze.
Upon these richly textured forms emerged a dizzying range of individual visions, from playful, freehanded figurative illustrations, to a gaggle of miniature black faces afloat in a sea of white cream, to gorgeous, lush washes of saturated colors. Individually and collectively, these works transformed the bong from an intentionally blank canvas into a bona fide medium for self-expression.
Civilized spoke with Lawson and North of High Art Shop to learn about their expansive vision of cannabis’s place in the world at large — and in the world of high art, in particular.
C: Tell me about your creative paths and influences, and please feel free to expand across the board—art, design, literature, music, pets, you name it.
RL: I’m not really influenced by a lot of people, maybe Neil Diamond. Or pets. But not overly.
KN: I come from a background in music and I’ve played lots of improvisational music; I think that inspires my pieces. Richard and I have commonality in our interest in textural glazes like lava and crawl glazes. [Lava glazes produce intensely porous lava-like textures, and crawl glazes create an island-like pooling effect across the surface.] We both like the Japanese “Wabi-Sabi” philosophy of accepting imperfections, in that way it’s not unlike how I’ve played music: there’s no “wrong,” just “different.” We’re into asymmetry and color and handmade objects.