‘High art’ takes on new meaning in ‘Weed Museum,’ a pictorial tribute to Santa Cruz’s favorite plant.
At the beginning of this month, comedian Bill Maher succinctly summed up the issue of marijuana prohibition. “Pot is the new gay marriage,” he proclaimed. “And by that, I mean it’s the next obvious civil rights issue that needs to fall.” Maher went on to say, “Gay barriers fell when Americans realized gays were their neighbors, their friends, their family members, their co-workers. Certainly, that must also be true of potheads.”
If San Francisco is the West Coast hub of the gay rights movement, then Santa Cruz is arguably the equivalent for marijuana law reformists. The list of herbal advocates that have inhabited this area throughout history is longer than the bathroom line at a chili cook-off, and for every out-in-the-open activist, there are many more closet growers, midnight tokers and under-the-radar pot peddlers.
In light of all this, no one should be too surprised to see an art exhibition like “Weed Museum” sprouting from Santa Cruzan soil. Open now through the end of August, this “stoner art” display is the result of a collaboration between the Water Street gallery Art Research Office (ARO) and Artists for Weed Reform (AFWR), an organization comprised of “local artists devoted to creating art that is focused on the marijuana lifestyle.” Along with holding obvious appeal for 420-friendly locals, the show is likely to ignite nostalgic feelings in former burners. If its organizers have their way, it might even lead some skeptics to view pot in a new light.
Above all, “Weed Museum” offers a plenitude of munchies for the eyes. One of the most inventive of these is a projected art piece viewable between 7 and 10 p.m. during the First Friday receptions held at ARO in July and August. Visitors on those nights will be welcomed to the exhibition with a time-lapse, night-to-day video of L.A. projected onto the outside wall of the building. By way of specially designed prism spectacles known as “future eyes,” viewers will be afforded a fragmentary glimpse into the near future.
Once inside the building, which is open to the public each Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. as well as during the aforementioned First Friday receptions, participants can feast their eyes on a set of 25 pot pipes from various time periods, on loan from an unspecified collector. (All contributors to this exhibition have either gone nameless or used pseudonyms.) In the words of one ARO member, to whom we’ll refer to as “Smokey,” this pipe collection is a means of “relating to history through your connection with a smoking device.” Along with several blown-glass pieces, there’s the time-honored solid brass “proto pipe,” various devices crafted from shell and bone, a smoking utensil shaped like Jerry Garcia’s guitar, another that doubles as a kazoo, and even an Asian pipe that’s supposedly 1,000 years old.
In a slightly less whimsical vein, there’s Mary Anne Doe’s “Data Points,” a one-stop source of information on the legal aspects, economics, demographics and medical benefits of marijuana. ARO co-founder Mark Shunney hopes this piece will call attention to “what a state like California could make with the tax revenues, what a farmer who’s sitting in desperation around a potato crop could make, what they could do in regard to a more legalized form of this plant.”
Smokey chimes in: “It’s kind of like, ‘Look at what’s going up in smoke. Look at all the time we’re wasting. Look at what we could be doing.’ This is like prohibition was in the ’30s. We’re seeing this transition where now, more than half the country thinks it’s not a big deal: ‘You know what? Whether or not I even smoke it, it should probably be legal, and we’re probably wasting a lot of money trying to do this.’”
Alice Rivers, a 19-year-old Santa Cruz native who has been nominated as 2013’s Bay & Local Artist of the Year, echoes Smokey’s sentiments with her piece “Shades of Green,” consisting of mug shots of various people who have been busted for pot. Some of the faces belong to celebrities like Willie Nelson and Matthew McConaughey, the latter of whom was once arrested for playing bongos while baked. Other photos depict lesser-known arrestees with far graver tales to tale. As Rivers explains, the title Shades of Green refers to the varying degrees of seriousness with which “the absurdity of the criminalization of marijuana” is represented in this piece. She adds, “The green also not-so-subtly stands for the mighty dollar, which is always hanging over our heads as a key motivator of things we don’t understand or that make no sense.”
Operating under the pseudonym Etc, a group of local designers specializing in print and fabric mediums has crafted a series called “Hope Is Dope” for the exhibition. Herein, three different acrylic paintings on wood panel—Gold, Green and White editions—represent three different aspects of marijuana and its impact on the world. “Green represents the growth and life of the actual marijuana plants,” explains one of Etc’s artists. “White represents the hope that medical marijuana offers for pain management, and Gold represents the enormous influence the act of legalizing marijuana could have on alleviating state and national debt.”
Among other noteworthy offerings at “Weed Museum” are Sussex, England transplant Tom Mellow’s 38 x 46 acrylic painting “The Seed,” the influential graffiti artist Chronic’s spray paint piece “Single Ladies Burn One” (a nod to Beyoncé) and Amos & Ansel’s “Zephyrous,” which invites participants to enter a video booth and take a little journey by way of a video, a stack of cassettes and some headphones.
Good news for viewers hoping to bring a piece of this exhibition home with them: With many pieces priced under $100, and some as low as $20, you can leave the gallery with an original piece of stoner art and still have cash left for your next sack of goodies.
The roots of “Weed Museum” lie in the late 2012 ARO exhibition “Live Nude Eggs,” based on local artist/writer Raquel Cool’s experiences as an ovum donor. One of that installation’s most memorable features was a “Donor Bar,” where, in an effort to stimulate conversation on the commodification of the female body and the ethics of the fertility industry, Cool served attendees ovary martinis and breast milk cocktails. The bar’s menu, which boasted items like “Raquel’s Eggs” and “White Russians” (the latter of which contained the breast milk of a Russian woman) reminded certain AFWR members of the pot menus found in Amsterdam’s cannabis bars. The ensuing conversation led to the creation of Weed Museum.
According to Mark Shunney, “Live Nude Eggs” incensed at least one local. “I was getting calls: ‘Leave your porch light on,’” the curator recalls. “[The caller] must have been a very religious right-type guy who felt that Raquel’s show was really putting the finger into his soft spot.”
Though “Weed Museum” is unlikely to inspire any death threats, Shunney hopes the exhibition will spark some good conversation—possibly even debate. “We’re just opening it up for discussion,” he notes. “We’re not trying to tell anybody what to think. If you’re angry about it, great. I want to talk to you, too. You have a problem with this? I want to know why, because I think we can really talk it through, and you might walk out of here thinking a little differently.”
Shunney, also a sculptor and manager/assistant curator at UCSC’s Sesnon Art Gallery, feels that “Weed Museum” highlights an underrepresented aspect of Santa Cruz culture. “You look at the MAH’s history collection, and it stops at the industrialists, who came and ripped the land apart and made beaucoup bucks,” he offers. “Going in there, I was saying, ‘Wow. It really stopped there, when we beat the shit out of the Native American Indian, created gunpowder and found gold up there? Where’s the counterculture? Where’s the pride in the ’60s?’ I mean, we had Neal Cassady living and being an eccentric on Pacific Avenue. There’s no sign of that or the idea of how that history component relates to the greater community and the younger people.”
Shunney also hopes “Weed Museum” can help break stereotypes and “defy expectations of what stoner art is.” Along these lines, he says the show’s contributors have been anything but the undependable slackers some people might expect. “We’ve had a beautiful experience with this group,” he states. “Everyone’s on it, professional.”
But stoner stereotypes are just the beginning of the fallacies about pot that this exhibition addresses. As the aforementioned Etc representative puts it, “It is time that the many—often ignorant—misconceptions about marijuana be addressed. And we feel a responsibility to use our talents and interests to encourage that. It’s all in the name of progress.”
Alice Rivers believes this show is worth seeing because “the intention is genuine. Art should be experimental. It should push the boundaries and not be afraid to express dissatisfaction at the way in which things are or have been run. Artists are the true people’s representatives—our lawmakers’ conscience. Even if this isn’t someone’s cup of tea, it could be anything, really, that art addresses. It’s having a point of view. And the show definitely has one.” n
“Weed Museum” runs through the end of August at Art Research Office, 285 Water Street, Unit B, Santa Cruz. For more information, go to artresearchoffice.com or call 332-4142. To stay up-to-date on events at ARO, visit the gallery’s Facebook page: facebook.com/ArtResearchOffice.