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 une pipe. "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.
C: How did you two meet and how you did you start working together?
RL: We met at the studio. Kristian’s friend asked for a bong so we worked on it and things evolved from there.
KN: Richard and I met at the pottery studio we are still working out of today.
C: What was your vision in launching High Art Head Shop?
RL: We just enjoyed making bongs and people reacted very positively, so we just kept going.
KN: Since we were already working in the same studio, we just started making them. Everything started very organically. In that way, High Art is much less a company and more just two ceramic artists making these unique, one-of-a-kind objects.
C: How did you go about about contacting all the painters you collaborated with? And since each piece is unique, how did you go about matching up bongs with artists?
RL: The artists were all people we knew through the community. Many of them had passed through the studio at some point. We made a series of bongs and let the artists pick. Often we had visions of which artist and which bong, but in the end, they chose the bong they wanted.
C: Let’s talk about the concept of a bong as a canvas, and in some cases, as characters—so many of your pieces are animated.
RL: Funny you say that, we always talk about the bongs as individuals and assign them personalities.
KN: They do have a character. When working in 3D, its common to name or give character to your pieces, maybe because they are so tangible. Our philosophy in general is to push bongs into fine art territory, the way that people keep special china in the home, collect and display art vases in their homes or galleries, or cherish a crystal decanter. With this in mind, working towards hand-painted bongs seemed like a logical step.
C: Speaking of steps. Post 10/17 (the day Canada legalized cannabis), what do you see as the creative possibilities in a legal age? Is there anything that’s possible now that wasn’t possible before?
KN: Creatively, I don’t think anything has changed in Canada. Cannabis has always belonged to artists. Now new people will try it, which is good, but I don’t think it can do anything new for the creative community — it’s already done so much.
C: Is there one design that you’d choose as your 10/17 design? Or, if you were to design one piece in honor of 10/17, what would that piece be or look like?
RL: Good question!
C: Actually, I noticed that Montreal artist Waxhead (@waxheadart) posted a picture of your bong collaboration in honor of 10/17, so I guess it would look a lot like that. I wouldn’t have thought a web of snakes and skulls and crystals would be so appealing, but it’s a fantastic piece. So let’s talk about your collaboration with Waxhead.
RL: I met Waxhead quite a few years ago at a failed pop-up we were both involved in. We live in the same neighborhood, and he is incredibly prolific, so I would see his work every day going to the depanneur or the studio, and I just kept imagining it on a bong. We talked about it, and almost immediately, he started work. No intense sketches or planning, he just creates; I really love the way he works.
C: Penelope Smart at Dynasty, a self-described exhibitor of “contemporary art in a #plant shop,” sounds like an ideal venue for your show. How’d it feel? How did the night go?
RL: It was such a great place to have a show. Surrounded by plants and flowers and really great people. It was a beautiful experience.
C: Not to play favorites — well, maybe a little — but I’d love to hear about which were your personal favorite pieces from Ceci N’est Pas Un Bong.
KN: All of them are so different, it’s impossible to choose.
RL: I do play favorites. I do love Simone Blain’s bong the most. Unfortunately, my favorite is also the bong we shipped to L.A. to get in the hands of Snoop Dogg. Never heard anything, but apparently he got it.
C: One last question, and not to put you two on the spot, but since we don’t employ gender, who decided “bong” is masculine? Couldn’t it be une bong?
KN: In French, all nouns are gendered like in most Latin languages. For the most part, it is just an antiquated, linguistic rule dealing with inanimate objects, not really with gendered [nouns] as living beings... but some people are, rightfully, trying to modernize some of these rules today. As a general rule, words coming from English like “bong” are masculine, hence “un bong.”
RL: Kristian’s girlfriend is French and said it was “un.” What do we know? We just make bongs.
C: Mais bien sûr [but of course].
Photos provided by High Art Head Shop