ENTERTAINMENT ARTS & CULTURE

Don't worry, Mom, it's not a bong; it's art

Call it high art.

A pop-up art gallery inside the Chateau Marmont hotel features a display of hand-blown, art-glass marijuana paraphernalia — and the price tags run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Grey Space Art, which will be at the hotel through Oct. 5, is the brainchild of a 22-year-old New Yorker named Benjamin Milstein, who said he amassed cash after investing in cannabis stock in 2013 two weeks before it became legal in Colorado. That sparked an interest in functional glass art in the form of bongs and pipes and prompted him to embark on a journey around the world — Japan, the Netherlands, Britain and Spain, among other places — to buy sculptural works.

In two years, Milstein collected more than 500 pieces by about 80 artists.

"Honey Bear" by Kurt B.
"Honey Bear" by Kurt B. (Grey Space Art)

“I felt the functional glass industry had momentum,” Milstein said. “And I wanted to make relationships with these artists to take them from the underground world of the small, niche cannabis community to the mainstream art world.”

Milstein started Grey Space Art in June 2016 in New York; the launch party was in Italian fashion designer Riccardo Tisci's Soho townhouse. The initial focus was on exhibiting, not selling, the glass works; but then Milstein “got serious” this May; he has since sold about $350,000 in bongs, he said.

Milstein expects Los Angeles to be especially interested in his cannabis art.

“L.A. is definitely more liberal leaning than New York. The people here are always willing to see the new trends and share what they think is cool. It’s a very reflective place,” he said. “And I think on the West Coast we’ll have the best ability to grow the perception of this medium as fine art.”

"Vahana," by artists Banjo and Phil Siegel.
"Vahana," by artists Banjo and Phil Siegel. (Grey Space Art)

Of course, there’s a long history between art objects and mind-altering substances such as marijuana and hallucinogens. The ancient Egyptians used ritualistic, decorative smoking pipes; and in the so-called “absinthe era” in the late 1800s, the green drink inspired scores of artists and authors. In the early 1970s, a glassblower named Bob Snodgrass sold his art pipes in the parking lots of Grateful Dead concerts, sparking a "functional glass art" movement of sorts and earning him the nickname “the godfather of glass.” As recently as 2012, the Brazilian painter Fernando de la Rocque used marijuana smoke and stencils to create delicate works on paper. There’s even a comic book hero, Ziggy Marley’s Marijuanaman.

Milstein’s collection continues in this tradition, bringing together the most prolific and established artists working with art glass bongs. The Chateau Marmont exhibition will feature 25 bongs by about 30 artists, with prices ranging from $5,000 to $300,000, Milstein said.

“Mother Nature’s Gun,” by the art duo Robert Mickelsen and Calvin Mickle, is a multicolored AK-47 adorned with leaves, butterflies and larva bullets; the “Hayabusa Satellite,” by Washington state artist Sagan, is an elaborate white satellite disc sculpture housing shimmery dichroic bits.

The work that costs $300,000 is an intricate, hollow sculpture, “Vahana,” by artists Banjo and Phil Siegel. The foot-wide piece depicts a glowing, translucent orange alien reclining on a hamock-like seat. When it’s in-use, smoke visibly flows through the alien’s body, giving it an ethereal, almost psychedelic quality.

The price point largely has to do with the artists, Milstein said.

“Banjo is one of the best-selling artists in this medium. He’s been doing this for more than 20 years. He’s an extraordinary artist. Phil Siegel is also very well known and respected,” Milstein said. “And the work itself is definitely a marquee work among their collaborations; and it’s pretty large scale.”

But will anyone actually shell out that much cash — what could be a down payment on a house — for an especially pretty bong? Milstein is certain there’s an active collector base for the works.

“These pieces are very liquid, meaning you can find a collector to buy high-end pieces by one of these artists — the top of the top — pretty easily within the cannabis community,” he said. “But I’m trying to reach out to a new market. This is a collectible medium by highly skilled glass artists. And just like graffiti art 20 years ago, this is a young medium thats growing, and people should get in now.”

"Mother Nature's Rifle," by Robert Mickelsen and Calvin Mickle.
"Mother Nature's Rifle," by Robert Mickelsen and Calvin Mickle. (Grey Space Art)

The pieces may be coined “functional glass art” within the industry, but for Milstein, art comes before function.

“The whole goal is to showcase these artists, sometimes very highly trained and who have been blowing glass for many years or even decades,” Milstein said. “All the pieces I sell are more art pieces than functional. They’re using the bong as their underlying shared vision, they’re all coming from the cannabis world, but towards spreading their art.

“When someone visits the gallery, I want to take them on a journey,” he adds. "I want them to have an experience.”

A pretty dope one, at that.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Grey Space Art

Where: Chateau Marmont, 8221 Sunset Blvd., L.A.

When: Through Oct. 5; by appointment only

Info: (814) 460-3365 or email contact@greyspaceart.com.

deborah.vankin@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @debvankin

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