Le Bain

Cigar Boxes and New York Art: A Timeless Connection

Light up your senses at Europa Gallery with “The Artist and the Cigar Box” exhibition! Featuring 17 artists reimagining the cigar box, this show, hosted by New York's cigar brand Civil Pleasures and curated by Maxx Starr, blends historical homage with cutting-edge creativity. We spoke with Maxx Starr and Sean Dorsey of Civil Pleasures ahead of the show opening this Thursday, June 6th and its AfterParty at Le Bain. 

THE STANDARD: What inspired you to feature cigar boxes in this contemporary exhibition?

MAXX STARR: Artwork on cigar boxes started with the taxation of tobacco in the 1860's. Before cigars were packaged in boxes they arrived on our shores in barrels. Federal agents had a difficult time discerning where the cigars were coming from and soon enough Congress passed a law requiring cigar manufacturers to package their products in wooden boxes. Cigar makers began labeling the cigars and boxes with artwork of naked women, running horses, faces of local bar heroes, snakes, and other images that represented the cigar seller best. 

In the early aughts of cigar art, the Lower East Side was the primary printer of cigar bands and cigar boxes in the country. "The Artist and the Cigar Box" reflects on our cities historical relationship with cigar art by paying homage and then pushing the medium further than it's been done before. 

Header Box: Emma Stern, Simple Pleasures, 2024. Box 1: Dylan Solomon Kraus, Civil Pleasure (Full Moon), 2024. Box 2: Ellon Gibbs, Fall Night in East Flatbush, 2024. 
Maxx Starr, the curator of "The Artist And The Cigar Box"
"The current art scene is vibrant and has a classic New York sense of “Fuck you”, which this show fearlessly encapsulates.” – Maxx Starr

How did you approach and select the 17 participating artists? What are their similarities or common traits?

There were key directions I identified as important while putting together this show: the history of cigars, the act of smoking a cigar, the future of Civil Pleasure, and the wellbeing of Artistic Noise. Uniting these themes provided a clear guidance towards my goal of curating a fantastic group of artists who, when brought together in a room, would provide a kaleidoscopic view of the show's themes. 

The roster of artists consists of New Yorkers, ex New Yorkers and two painters from London. By including artists based out of London, Civil Pleasures is following an age-old seafaring route between two cities that have deep rooted appreciation for smoking cigars.

Have you noticed any recurring themes among the artists’ works that particularly stand out in this exhibition?

Staying within the tradition of cigar art I told the artists to paint as they wanted with no overarching theme for the show as cigar imagery has always been individualistic. Seeing how the artists approached the box as a canvas was as enjoyable as seeing the paintings themselves. There is an exterior and interior to play with. The top of the box can be unscrewed and removed which gives way to a framed canvas. By painting on the top of the box it becomes reminiscent of paintings we see hung in galleries now where there is no frame. Excitingly, the works are all quite varied in approach.  

Alongside artists such as Mark Gonzales, Matt Dillon, Dylan Kraus, Emma Stern, Ellon Gibbs, Marika Thunder, and Harmony Korine, included in the opening is a youth participant from Artistic Noise, Tony Mack. I asked the director of the program if any of the kids that are involved in the workshop had an interest in exhibiting a piece. His piece boldly used the box as both a material to paint on and a platform to show a clay bust depicting himself. Self portraits are internal pieces that can be quite difficult, I'm beyond grateful he shared this piece with us. It's a knockout work that shows adroitness and strength. 

What does this exhibition tell us about the vitality of the downtown New York art scene?

The economy is different than it was a couple years ago. Politically, our country is experiencing fear based views by our–ever so lucky–choice of only two parties. These experiences give us moments of weighted feeling and challenged thought, but in our epicenter of visual creativity this gives way to blossoming.  

The Lower East Side is pumping out super interesting works outside of college degrees that are looked at seriously. From there, it's a quick walk to Tribeca which embodies a mix of the classical and upcoming movements in the downtown art scene. The current art scene is vibrant and has a classic New York sense of “Fuck you”, which this show fearlessly encapsulates.

Box 3: Isaac Andrews, Protector, 2024. Box 4: Marika Thunder, Hyundai Benz (Box Edition), 2024.
Sean Dorsey (Civil pleasures) by Ruvan
"These artists illuminated that cigar culture isn't only Arnold Schwarzenegger, Winston Churchill, or the fat cats stereotypes  but also our heroes, the Charles Mingus, Frank Stella, Peter Zumthor, Mies Van Der Rohe, Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp's of the world." – Sean Dorsey of Civil Pleasures

THE STANDARD: What inspired you to start Civil Pleasures? What was your background with cigar culture and business?

SEAN DORSEY: The story behind Civil Pleasures is a journey that began with a love for Nicaragua, where my wife is from. When spending time there It is hard not to be profoundly inspired by the land of poets, lakes and volcanoes. Over time I became close to her family there who happen to own a cigar manufacturer in Nicaragua and together we started producing cigar events at clubs and hotels in NYC. In 2018 we began producing collaborative cigars with hospitality brands which evolved into developing our own cigar brand based around our culture and to our first cigar release, CP1, marking the beginning of Civil Pleasures presence in the cigar world.   

Civil Pleasures brings a modern New York street culture edge to the cigar world. Do you consider your market a niche, or do you want to conquer the world?

Regarding the market positioning, we believe cigars and pleasure are universally enjoyed so we have never thought of Civil Pleasures and what we do as a niche. The integration of cultural elements and art into the brand resonates emotionally with our audience, making it accessible and appealing to a broad spectrum of cigar enthusiasts. While we aim to spread the pleasures of cigars widely, our focus remains on creating a brand that reflects our personal interests and values authentically. We printed a Joseph Beuys quote on the back of our first cigar band as we were inspired by Social Sculpture art theory which serves as an aspirational guide to Civil Pleasures' take on cigar culture, art into society, society into art.

How do you see this collaboration with some of the best NY contemporary artists reflecting the brand’s identity and values?

Art is a layer of our core identity and values. The Artist and the Cigar Box contributes to the cultural dialogue surrounding art and also features several iconic cigar enthusiasts such as Mark Gonzales, and Matt Dillion. These artists illuminated that cigar culture isn't only Arnold Schwarzenegger, Winston Churchill, or the fat cats stereotypes  but also our heroes, the Charles Mingus, Frank Stella, Peter Zumthor, Mies Van Der Rohe, Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp's of the world. That delineation isn't primarily what the show is based on but the references are there. We greatly admire and are honored by every artist participating in our benefit auction for Artistic Noise but every artist doesn't necessarily smoke cigars. In most homes you will find a cigar box containing something sacred on the dresser, this is an extension of that or a repurposing.

One of the key aspects is “creating a pause for ideation.” Tell us about it.

The pause emphasizes the importance of taking moments of contemplation and reflection, whether through laying on the beach, sweating in the Russian baths or smoking a cigar, to stimulate creativity and inspire new ideas.

How do you balance maintaining the traditional aspects of cigar culture with introducing innovative and contemporary elements to make Civil Pleasures unique?

I think the story begins with a really good cigar and then balancing the traditional aspects of cigar culture with innovative and contemporary elements. While Civil Pleasures embraces modernity, we also respect and honor the craftsmanship and history of cigar artisans in Nicaragua who have become the collaborators in the story that Civil Pleasures provides. 

Tell us about your connection with Estelí in Nicaragua, where your cigars are produced.

The connection is family, our partner Joya de Nicaragua is the first premium handmade factory in Estelí and highlights our dedication to quality and tradition. The vibrant landscape and rich tobacco heritage of Estelí provide a fitting backdrop for the creation of Civil Pleasures cigars. A visit to the Joya factory in Estelí is like entering Berghain for the first time, with exciting curiosities at every turn.

"The Artist and the Cigar Box: opening this Thursday June 6th at Europa, 125 Division St., New York, NY10002. From 6pm to 9pm. Click for the auction (all proceeds benefit Artistic Noise)
Afterparty at Le Bain at The Standard, High Line, with a Civil Pleasures Rooftop Lounge. Music by Toneluva and Bridge Street Sound. Doors 10pm. 

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