Connections between cannabis and contemporary art are becoming more apparent all the time. Just a few months ago Gagosian — one of the world’s largest collections of blue-chip galleries — launched a marijuana brand, Katz + Dogg by art star Richard Prince, featuring artist-designed pre-rolled joint packages and vape pens (with a Prince- approved strain inside them).
Yet this high-art “trend” isn’t really new, and isn’t only celebratory: It has deeper dimensions, wider histories and critical complexities, too.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Toronto and Athens based artist Chrysanne Stathacos made her first cannabis and ivy print paintings. Intensely layered and looping in shades of black, blue and red on canvas, these leaf and vine trace works have a mystical and hypnotic yet graphic, feel. In 2018, these same paintings found renewed viewers through shows at New York’s hip Lower East Side gallery Situations, and Toronto’s Cooper Cole, with Artforum praising the way they “champion the healing properties of the plant avant la lettre, anticipating today’s global decriminalization and legalization movement.”
Themes of myth and magic, plants and smoke, recur through Stathacos’ four-decade oeuvre — they are ways to address ephemerality, community and her Canadian- Greek-American heritage. Cannabis is just one offshoot of that practice, but it’s an important one for honouring a certain time, place and people. “The idea of the imprint of the leaf…was evocative of trying to have some sustenance and permanence during the impermanent time of the late 1980s and early 1990s with AIDS and the body politic,” Stathacos explains of her historic cannabis works. Stathacos’ friend Jorge Zontal, of the iconic queer art collective General Idea, was ill with AIDS back then. When both were young and living in New York, Zontal grew his own cannabis and other plants in his West Village yard, giving some to Stathacos (who lived in a tiny Little Italy studio) to use in her paintings. “Jorge and I would play in his backyard garden,” Stathacos recalls, “and that artwork grew organically out of our friendship.”
Stathacos’ art reflects community in other ways, too: “Artists I came up with in 1990s New York were using similar ideas,” she points out, like Terence McKenna, Fred Tomaselli and composer Ben Neill, who put her cannabis art on the cover of his reissued album, Green Machine.
Ashley McKenzie-Barnes is Curator of Culture and Experience at byMinistry, a new cultural space in Toronto that aims to reflect art and community needs in new ways, too. “It’s not a gallery; it’s a dedicated space for different forms of artistry and experimentation,” McKenzie-Barnes explains. McKenzie-Barnes comes to the job having just curated cutting edge art on race, visibility and class for an audience of one million at Toronto’s 2019 Nuit Blanche.
“With everything I do,” she says, “there’s always a challenge of being a disruptor in some sense, or breaking a stigma.” One cause McKenzie-Barnes will foreground at byMinistry — especially as cannabis becomes (like high art) very much a luxury product — is the Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty. “It’s important we talk about canna- bis amnesty in our projects,” she affirms. “Not just about smoking and pleasure, but about justice and equity — especially given how much racialized populations have been targeted with possession convictions and jail time.”
The Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty currently has an ongoing petition and public events, such as panels at film screenings. Though its project with byMinistry is still in development, McKenzie-Barnes remains committed to collaboration: “The mandate is to work together [with the Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty] to bring awareness to what they are doing,” she says. “We have to be conscious about the injustices of minor convictions before the prohibition, and the effect it has on lives post-legalization.”
British Columbia-raised, Amsterdam-based artist Arvo Leo started studying flowers, like orchids, as part of his art practice — and cannabis soon sprouted up in his investigations. For his 2018 exhibition Lungs of Flowers at the world-renowned Rijksakademie, Leo grew several cannabis plants in a greenhouse atop the old cavalry barracks. Then he put dozens of plant cuttings, along with a video, in an installation space. Visitors could, through a hole in the floor, exchange rocks from the rooftop for the cannabis. Through this inefficient and elaborate process of the rocks making their way from the rooftop into the exhibition and eventually down into a hole in the ground, Leo created a ‘reverse extraction process’, returning this industrially extracted material back to the earth.
“We enjoy looking at flowers, we enjoy eating certain flowers, and in the case of cannabis, we enjoy smoking its flowers.”
The result was a meditation on interior and exteri- or, light and dark, individual and environment, material and immaterial. “Even your own lungs are not really just you,” Leo wrote in his artist statement. “Your lungs are temporary shelters for the outside world to spend time in the middle of your being. Interestingly, whether it is night or day, your body decides to keep this space in perpetual night-mode; dark and moist, sunless, a place where bats would love to dwell. So if we imagine smoke entering your lungs as a cloud of tiny flying bats, then this helps us to stay connected to the cave; to the idea of shelter, to fire, to warmth, to shadows, and to the nascency of images.”
More recently, with his piece Sun Windows Moon Tendrils, at Hotel Maria Kapel just north of Amsterdam, Leo planted a permanent garden artwork of geraniums and tulips. The first incarnation of Leo’s flower trilogy (an entangling of his ongoing research into orchids, cannabis and tulips), he gave away the leftover dried cannabis flower that he’d grown at the Rijksakademie through the floor. It’s a reminder, on the one hand, of the Netherlands’ dominance of the flower trade (44 per cent globally), while at the same time many cannabis growers there remain, officially, illegal.
“We enjoy looking at flowers, we enjoy eating certain flowers, and in the case of cannabis, we enjoy smoking its flowers,” writes Leo. “These flowers are sexual forms grown healthy with sunshine, water, bat guano, and seaweed that we eventually transform into smoke so they can circulate within our blood. Unlike images of flowers and sculptures of flowers — that are often made to with- stand the erosion of time — cannabis flowers themselves are grown to disappear; to be combusted, consumed, and bloom again within our insides.”
Curator Penelope Stewart encountered anti-cannabis bias when she brought Montreal’s High Art Head Shop exhibition Ceci n’est pas un bong to Toronto.
“Probably the best attended show” Stewart has ever worked on, it was full of beautiful ceramics painted by artists like Claire Milbrath, Luc Paradis and Simone Blain. But appreciation of the ceramics ended for many viewers when they realized the function of these vessels. “As somebody who really loves and is excited about craft- based practices, particularly ceramics,” Stewart says she found the chill surprising. “As soon as I said ‘bong’ some people basically just stopped listening…I was like, what other terms can we use? ‘Cannabis-led vessel?’ Ha!”
Vancouver artist Myfanwy MacLeod, for her part, addresses psychoactive substances in wryly thoughtful ways through her art. (In 2009, for example, she created a minimalist-sculpture version of an old North Carolina moonshine still, titling it Everything Seems Empty Without You — a nod both to minimalism’s spareness in high art, and alcohol’s predominance in pop culture.)
MacLeod also remains intrigued by Michael Pollan’s notion of cannabis as a “tool for forgetting.” And yet, paradoxically, MacLeod still manages to graft the plant into works entwined with memories of her 1970s southern Ontario youth.
MacLeod’s installation, Albert Walker, for instance, is titled after a criminal connected to the area where she grew up, and after a type of cannabis plant. It contains a dozen 3D-printed replicas of outsized marijuana buds in a mirrored display: “The Albert Walker is a specific type of clone [of marijuana plant], and because he was an identity thief and an embezzler, the idea that the plant was a clone was interesting to me,” she says.
MacLeod’s small sculpture Sweet Maryjane positions a rainbow, 3D-printed marijuana bud against a heavily moustached man from an old photograph. It’s a work that uses 1970s imagery, and is congruent with other kinds of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll aspects of her work (like the eviscerated 1977 Camaro she titled Ramble On) that critiqued the muscle car-driving, Led Zeppelin-esque conception of gender with which she grew up.
“In the 1950s and 1960s, [masculinity] was more about alcohol — the Mad Men excessive-drinking thing. During prohibition, writers like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald used it as a sign of virility,” MacLeod has said. “In the 1970s, that shifts into marijuana, and all of those books by Carlos Castenada, Aldous Huxley and Herman Hesse — a different way of understanding consciousness.”
Now, though, with leaves and mud, amnesty and activism, craft and commerce, artists and curators are advancing conversations about cannabis — as well as the biases of sexuality, race, class, gender and craft that continue to surround it.
“I can really appreciate the creativity and drive and force behind weed,” Stewart says. “It’s important to me that art is responsive or leading the way in things that people care about outside of a store or gallery.”