Goosefire Gallery's Smokeable Sculpture in Long Beach: Can Bongs Be (High) Art?

Jo O'Boyle holding Mr. Gray's "Nug Study #4"
Jo O'Boyle holding Mr. Gray's "Nug Study #4"
Paul T. Bradley

Bongs -- their size, complexity, and generally mythic qualities -- have been the subject of skits, Onion satire and every manner of terrible college comedy. There's that one that was four stories high, or there was that impossible Rube Goldberg device your stoner cousin once built out of his Dodge Dart. Recalling smoking devices has become it's own folklore.

Jo O'Boyle can recall many smoking devices she once saw -- as the curator of Long Beach's Goosefire Gallery, it's basically her job, since Goosefire specializes in glass art, mostly of the, ahem, functional variety. But make no mistake, this is hardly the stuff of post-munchy legend -- this is earnest art and Ms. O'Boyle takes her job seriously.

Some of Goosfire's more traditional functional art - works by Marcel Braun
Some of Goosfire's more traditional functional art - works by Marcel Braun
Paul T. Bradley

We politely take O'Boyle away from her preparations for Goosefire's Saturday show opening to get a tour. The gallery is showing the work of artist Luke Wilson (no, not that one...this one is a renowned glass blower) and they've got a few empty display cases in anticipation of the artist's work.

This place, first discovered by the Press-Telegram, is hardly a head shop. Artists like Wilson and glassware legend Clinton Roman have the gallery booked solid through next year, even though it has only been open since May. Frankly, there just aren't any other galleries where they can showcase their work.

"There was a gallery in Brooklyn called Easy Street -- that actually inspired Goosefire but it just had its last show," O'Boyle laments, "They just didn't have the supportive medical marijuana culture." Cannabis cultures like California -- particularly in Los Angeles -- are the only places where this art can truly thrive.

Goosefire Gallery is owned by Matt Abrams, who also owns a more traditional head shop called High Priority Glass and whose family owns One Love dispensary-- allowing for perfect synergy of business, medicine and art. All three spaces are located on the same block in Long Beach, and the gallery is appropriately located in the historic Hauser Building, lending credence to its high art sensibilities.

O'Boyle, as a curator, has an infectious, enthusiastic charm. She takes us through some of the cases she's assembled, finding it understandably difficult to be succinct. There are boatloads of knowledge to be had about this art form -- dozens of sandblasting, blowing and coloring techniques. "There's almost nothing about this stuff on the internet," she says.

The names of the sculptors sound like they're from a roster of graffiti artists: Lurch, Sakibomb, Mr. Gray, D-Wreck. "There's actually a lot of fusion between street art and glass art," O'Boyle tells us.

While glass-blowing is an ancient practice, glass as art is relatively new concept, as the studio glass movement started in the early 1960s. This stuff is something else entirely. It's like returning function back to studio glass while infusing art into a strictly functional domain.

Another Marcel Braun - Where the hell do you put the weed in?
Another Marcel Braun - Where the hell do you put the weed in?
Paul T. Bradley

Since this art functions pretty much one way, we found ourselves asking "So, where do you put weed in that one?" But we had to couch it in that absurd but necessary double-speak: "Um, so is this one, like, medical? Uh, like, can a patient medicate with this particular piece and how would one do so?" It's a linguistic dance that everyone in that industry seems to do fluidly but that most non-patients, or, y'know, purely recreational smokers haven't or can't leap to. We want to ask with the utmost bluntness "How utterly fucked-up will this earthshatteringly ornate piece of art get you?"

Sadly, since gonzo journalism has become unfashionable, we suppose we're not going to find out just now. Also, the gallery, while associated with both a traditional head shop and dispensary, does not allow medicating on the premise. Goosefire is strictly about the art.

So why would anyone want a $15,000 bong -- err, functional artwork? Jo's answer, "I like to think of it like fine china. When you have really special guests over and you're cooking up something special, you bust out the fine china. This is exactly like that. This will sit on your mantle or in a display case until a really special occasion." Even if that fine china is a giant smokeable lemur skeleton made entirely out of glass? Yup. (For the record, Goosefire's pieces range from $100 to astronomical, covering the price points for any type of collector.)

A giant smokeable lemur skeleton -- this one, designed by Darby Holm, Buck and Carlisle breaks down into multiple smokeable sections.
A giant smokeable lemur skeleton -- this one, designed by Darby Holm, Buck and Carlisle breaks down into multiple smokeable sections.
Photo by Jared Schoenemann, Courtesy of Goosefire Gallery

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So what does the curator in a smokeable art gallery do? "I clean a lot of glass, I talk to a lot of artists, and I contact a lot of media...look at this list...," she says, pointing to a mile-long list of contacts. She's also begun hunting for new artists, getting to know all the folks who are pushing the envelope of this growing art form.

As we're talking, a mother and daughter peruse the gallery. "We get the craziest variety of people in here," O'Boyle says. "There are even whole families. It blows my mind how many types of people come in here."

Is this the beginning of a red-eyed renaissance of sorts? We really hope so. Seeing this ornate glass, assembled in ways that defy gravity and functionality, it won't be hard for viewers to look past the murky legality of their intended function.

Oh, and how DID you get this fucking amazing job, Jo? "Craigslist," she says. Rad. Only in L.A.

Follow @LAWeeklyArts and @paultbradley on Twitter.

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