Past Exhibitions

High On Life

The Marriage of Art, Science & Philosophy

Artist Charlie Stagg
Photo by Bud Lee

October 5, 2002 - September 1, 2003

Curated by Tom Patterson

As human beings, we are hardwired to experience ecstasy, epiphany, laughter, and bliss. Little children twirling in the summer sun to experience the altered state of becoming falling-down-dizzy are not very far removed from whirling dervishes seeking spiritual attunement with the harmonious spin of the planet. If the pull upward into ecstasy is mighty, human frailties dictate that the ascent will be an imperfect one, with use sometimes leading to the hell of abuse. The National Institutes of Health put the total cost of alcohol and drug abuse at $245 billion in 1992, up 50 percent over 1985. The human toll is incalculable.

Because the urge is biological, and because the distinction between licit and illicit drugs is not based on harm, legal attempts at prohibition seem doomed to failure. Albert Einstein's 1921 words on Prohibition ring as true of the "War on Drugs" as they did the War on Alcohol: "The prestige of government has undoubtedly been lowered considerably by the Prohibition law. For nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced. It is an open secret that the dangerous increase of crime in this country is closely connected with this." The War on Drugs is a war that does not go away, is not won, and does not end. It is a war with an economic and emotional price tag that exceeds the costs of all the wars in which Americans have fought and died. In a new millennium with age-old problems escalating exponentially, taking a compassionate and searingly honest look at humankind's long history of addiction and self-medication, along with positive efforts toward spiritual transformation, is the only way to formulate enlightened actions and compassionate responses. If human beings are intrinsically flawed, they are also endlessly transcendent. Addiction is a spectrum in which we all participate, whether our drug of choice is caffeine, nicotine, morphine, sugar or shopping. To paraphrase Pogo, "We have met the addict and he is us."


"I can resist everything except temptation." - Oscar Wilde

Western culture's notion of temptation is twinned with its concept of sin: Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden for eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and their subsequent offspring have borne the burden of that original error ever since. Implicit in this viewpoint is the suggestion that heeding the call of the senses, and of drugs that affect them, is inherently anti-social, self-destructive, or deviant. In Eastern cultures, the notion of attraction to or dependence upon the material world is viewed as a loss of self-mastery. Yet humans are biologically programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. We are not lone creatures in this urge: As UCLA psychopharmacologist Ronald Siegal noted in his 1989 book Intoxication, "After sampling the numbing nectar of certain orchids, bees drop to the ground in a temporary stupor, then weave back for more. Birds gorge themselves on inebriating berries, then fly with reckless abandon. Cats eagerly sniff catnip then play with imaginary objects. Cows browse special range weed then twitch, shake, shudder, and stumble back for more. Elephants purposely get drunk on fermented fruits. Snacks on Magic Mushrooms cause monkeys to sit with their heads on their hands in a posture reminiscent of Rodin's The Thinker."

The natural desire to feel good-sometimes most powerfully experienced precisely when we're not feeling good-renders us ever-receptive to anything that promises to improve our sense of well-being, no matter how temporarily, and in many cases regardless of the cost. The works in this section of High on Life illustrate the powerful allure that certain drugs, habits, and compulsive behavior patterns exert.

"Opportunity may only knock once, but temptation leans on the doorbell." - Anonymous


Intoxicants may promise a quick-fix paradise, but the promise comes without a guarantee, and for some users repeated attempts to visit paradise wind up leading precisely in the opposite direction. Drugs can transport one for a while to realms of bliss, ecstasy, and sensual delight; they can also plunge the user into deeply disturbing chasms of horror and psychological or physical pain.

The works in "Descent" stem from a variety of motivations and contexts, but they all reflect, either literally or metaphorically, the "hellish" aspect of drug experience and human experience in general-a dimension of consciousness, also associated with nightmares, that is inherently disturbing and sometimes terrifying.

"If ever there was a room made by the devil, it would be a shooting gallery." - Michael Carbone, Social Worker


From the standpoint of the legal system, there are only two classes of drugs-legal and illegal. Classification is not based on harm but on history, custom, and economics, and the lines shift like sand from place to place and across time. After coffee was banned in Egypt in the 16th century, dealers were punished and stocks were burned. In 1777, Frederick the Great of Prussia banned coffee roasting except in official government establishments, saying, "Many battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer, and the King does not believe that coffee-drinking soldiers can be relied upon to endure hardships in case of another war."

In colonial America, liquor was "food, medicine, and social lubricant." Laudanum, an opium derivative, was widely used throughout the eighteenth century, for everything from soothing a teething baby to easing the arthritic aches and pains of the elderly. Nineteenth-century America has been described as a "dope fiend's paradise," where opium, morphine, and heroin were all as legal and accessible as aspirin. Brilliant Johns Hopkins surgeon Dr. William S. Halsted, who became an addict after pioneering local anesthesia, used morphine daily. In the early years of the twentieth century, members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union railed against the dangers of alcohol but consumed quantities of opium-laced patent medicines like Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup or McMunn's Elixir of Opium at their temperance meetings. Today, marijuana is illegal in the United States, but in the European Union and Canada, authorities are moving to decriminalize or legalize it and medical uses are already permitted in many of those countries.

The artworks in Dispensation deal with the wide range of substances whose use is legal and socially sanctioned for medicinal or recreational use in the United States. They include sugar, nicotine, alcohol, and prescription drugs, as well as other legal, socially sanctioned substances and activities, such as food and shopping, often associated with addictive behavior.

Just Say Know

"If there is a war on drugs, then many of our family members are the enemy. And I don't know how you wage war on your own family." - Michael Douglas as the newly appointed Drug Czar Robert Wakefield in TRAFFIC

Former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke called the war on drugs "our domestic Vietnam." Like the Vietnam War, Schmoke said, the War on Drugs has "lasted too long and cost too many lives. . . . It's time to bring this enervating war to an end. It's time for peace."

Few topics of public discourse since the Vietnam War have proven more contentious than drugs. Several U.S. Presidents in a row have supported the heavily financed, highly publicized war, with results that have been, in the most generous estimation, dubious. The phrase most often associated with the endeavor is the slogan coined by former First Lady Nancy Reagan to discourage young people from using illegal drugs: "Just say no." However, when it comes to drugs, as with sex, young people tend to be curious, inquisitive, unwilling to settle for oversimplified answers, and suspicious of the advice offered by their elders. As Ogden Nash put it: "Oh, what a tangled web do parents weave/When they think that their children are naïve." The millions of young people and adults who regularly consume illegal drugs aren't the only ones who have rejected the "Just say no" approach and questioned the wisdom of the War on Drugs. Increasing numbers of ordinary, non-using citizens, as well as respected leaders from across the political spectrum have urged rethinking our society's punishment-oriented approach to drugs in favor of a "harm reduction" approach that acknowledges that there is no ultimate solution to the problem of drugs in a free society, and advocates lessening the harm of drugs through education, prevention, and treatment.

The works in Just Say Know embody with imagery and texts just a few of the many arguments that have been offered to support various positions in this ongoing societal debate.

Constant Craving

"Junk is the ideal product . . . the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy . . ." - William S. Burroughs, Introduction to Naked Lunch

What makes one continue to push the pleasure pedal long after pleasure has turned to pain? In a 1954 Bulletin on Narcotics, the U.N. Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention defines the Spanish word for drug addiction-toxicomania-as "an irresistible urge towards poisons, in particular narcotic substances." A drug is commonly defined as any substance that in small amounts produces significant changes in the body, mind or both. Definitions of addiction vary, but most include the element of loss of control over use. Essentially, drugs overwhelm the body. The issue is less one of free choice: An addicted person is biologically reprogrammed and will continue to use even when recurring physical or psychological problems outweigh the pleasure.

In a speech titled "Why We Are All Addicted," Andrew Weil, M.D., describes a patient with a six-gram-a day cocaine habit. The only pleasure shooting up gave her was in the first few minutes immediately after the day's first injection. The next five or six hours were filled with paranoia, violent shaking, insomnia, and palpitations. Describing her addiction, she said "I want not to want it." Weil traces the root of the craving to the origins of the universe and the evolution of human consciousness. "It's that fundamental. It's that much a part of our humanness. Not only is addiction universal, not only are all of us in it, but it's the essence of our being as humans." Given that addiction is part of who are, Weil says, the only solutions are to try to shift it so that the forms of its expression are less harmful-substituting exercise for cigarettes or a 12-step program for heroin-or to try to get at the root of the problem through intense introspection and meditation.

The primary drugs referenced in this gallery-heroin and cocaine-are derivatives of plants whose pharmaceutical properties have been known and exploited by human beings for millennia. Dependency on these drugs is probably just as old, but modern techniques for chemically refining them and self-administering them by intravenous injection are relatively new, developed only in the last two centuries. These highly efficient methods of concentrating and administering these drugs at very powerful dosages have substantially exacerbated the problem of dependency and abuse.

Plants of the Gods

"The shamanic plants and the worlds that they reveal are the worlds from which we imagine that we came long ago, worlds of light and power and beauty that in some form or another lie behind the eschatological visions of all of the world's great religions." - Terence McKenna, Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge (1992)

Shamanic use of plant-based hallucinogens-including cannabis, mushrooms, peyote, and ayahuasca-was central to the religious lives of people in parts of Africa, China, India, Tibet, Siberia, Mediterranean Europe, and the Americas. To the shaman with expertise in their use, the experience that rational science interprets as hallucination is an interdimensional interaction with supernatural beings and visible, sometimes audible energy forms-in other words, nothing short of a direct encounter with God or gods. For this reason, some modern students of these drugs have termed them "entheogens"-activators of inner divinity.

The widespread ritual use of these substances was demonized in Europe and in other parts of the world with the rise of the monotheistic religions and dominator cultures whose prevailing drugs of choice were alcoholic. European explorers and the missionary clergymen who accompanied them to the Americas-home to the widest variety of plant hallucinogens in the world-continued the campaign of suppression. They were so successful that the existence of most of these naturally occurring drugs-cannabis being a notable exception-remained virtually unknown to the modern Western world until their rediscovery in the mid-twentieth century.

This rediscovery took place first in the scientific and therapeutic communities, then spread quickly during the 1960s into the popular arena. The suddenly widespread, indiscriminate, and uncontrolled use of plant-based hallucinogens and their synthetically produced chemical derivatives-such as psilocybin, mescaline, DMT, and LSD-resulted in occasional public incidents and innumerable "bad trips." The ensuing sensationalizing by the mass media, and prompted a fierce legal and political backlash, resulting in the blanket legal prohibition of them all by the end of that turbulent decade. As with the prohibition of alcohol in this country earlier in the twentieth century, prohibition didn't dampen the public fascination with and inclination to use them. While the U.S. government put an end to virtually all legitimate experimental tests of these drugs, they continue to be used for private recreational, psychotherapeutic, and spiritual purposes, as reflected in the contemporary artworks that dominate this gallery.

The Third Eye

"The third eye is the director of energy or force, and thus an instrument of the will or Spirit . . . . It is the eye of the inner vision, and he who has opened it can direct and control the energy of matter, see all things in the Eternal Now, and therefore be in touch with causes more than with effects, read the akashic records, and see clairvoyantly." - Alice A. Bailey, A Treatise on Cosmic Fire (1925)

Drugs precipitate changes in brain chemistry. Such changes have also been associated with visionary states of consciousness achieved solely through mystical disciplines, without the aid of drugs. For many centuries adepts in spiritual disciplines ranging across virtually all religions have spoken of the transcendent, ecstatic states of consciousness achieved through the dedicated pursuit of meditation, fasting, dancing, and other arduous spiritual practices.

The enlightenment or divine illumination experience is perhaps most poetically characterized in the image of the newly opened "third eye"-a metaphor rooted in the pre-Ayurvedic oral and visual traditions of India, typically illustrated by an image of an eye positioned in the central forehead. This is the Ajna-Chakra of Tantric yoga, which teaches that this chakra, or energy center, forms the boundary between human and divine consciousness. Its actual location is within the brain, at the upper center of the skull, anatomically corresponding to the pineal gland, directly above one of the crucial byways for cerebrospinal fluid and in close proximity to the crucial emotional and sensory brain centers. Recent neurochemical theories have suggested a correspondence between the mystical enlightenment experience and the spontaneous release of the hallucinogen DMT, or N,N-dimethyltryptamine, within the pineal gland, and have also connected such endogenous DMT production with the spirit's departure from the body at the moment of physical death.

The works in this gallery allude in various ways to the precipitation of spiritually beneficial changes in brain chemistry in the absence of drugs, and point to the possibility that each of us has the innate capacity to self-regulate our brain chemistry in order to produce such changes and gain regular access to visionary consciousness or divine wisdom.