Four artists, improvising together like a jazz combo in a groove, called themselves SNIFF after what dogs do, and for five years painted up a storm at the Albany landfill. Now three of the four original SNIFFs, Scott Hewitt, Scott Meadows, and David Ryan, are back together and I’m happy to say their work is as wacky-wild and utterly resistant to interpretation as ever.
The SNIFFs did their first joint paintings “out at the fill” in 1998 on concrete blocks. When a floating dock washed ashore they painted on the decking. Their work was raucous, irrelevant, bawdy, and full of operatic extravagance. Their landfill period ended in 2003 when Scott Peterson’s attorneys held a press conference claiming they had evidence of a satanic cult operating on the landfill that might have murdered Peterson’s wife Laci. Their evidence? The paintings of SNIFF. The tsunami of publicity that followed blew the group apart—it came too fast and for the wrong reasons.
Now SNIFF’s out of the fill and into the comparative safety of a gallery. Their show consists of one mural-size painting that wraps around an entire room. It’s a landscape with figures. At one end a thatched hut can be seen through the trees. There’s snow on the roof and a sign on the front advertising “Girls.” Bright yellow light streams through the windows. A woman lounges in the open doorway. At the other end a carnival is in progress. An unsavory crowd dances out front in the shadows. In between these two questionable establishments is a dark woods.
What’s happening in the woods? A sinister tattooed jack rabbit squats in a corner. Not far away is a gender-ambiguous big foot in red panty briefs with hairy legs and a fat butt. A hunter who’s torn the head off his bear costume sits against a dead tree, cradling a gun with a bent barrel while a blue squirrel licks his white face. A village burns in the distance. What set the fire? Was it the pyromaniac bluebird flying through the forest with a lighted match in its beak? It’s clearly responsible for the burning pine tree, and the house in flames where the snowman lives who now runs away in his black galoshes. Who are the seven mismatched riders bundled on top of the rearing blue stallion with the black tail? And why are there two parallel worlds in this wintry woods—the world of the big people and that of the little ones, the tiny woman in a see-through dress who plays golf with the bear, the miniature caballero holding the reins of a leaping stallion, and the crew of little dying sailors, sprawled over the gunny wale of a boat that sails on a fetid sea.
SNIFF provides no explanation to its riddles: No explanation of the “Last Chance” gas station, empty and deserted, but brightly lit in the middle of the woods; nor of the red station wagon that’s seen better days, stopped on the road in front of it. No explanation of the load tied to its roof: the Egyptian mummy, (on which sits a family of little people), and the gigantic fish with iridescent scales from whose mouth dangle four little legs attached to two naked buttocks. From the ass hole of one sparks spray into the night. Or farts. Who knows?
There’s no explanation for the crew inside the car: the couple embracing beneath the green blanket in the way back; the fat balding man in the back seat, with a hand out the window holding a glowing tiny blue pixie; or the woman in the purple dress asleep in the front seat, who has tied a string to her finger a string that attaches to a carrot that trails behind the car, attracting a jackalope.
Bright are the headlights of the station wagon piercing the darkness. Caught in their glare is a gigantic black bull. Frightened is the deer with the Mexican saddle blanket that leaps over a guard rail, throwing to the ground the drunken elf that rode it.
And what of the owl woman with the headlamp breasts, the monkey sitting in a tree in a clown costume with his finger to his lips, and the multiple women in red dresses packing six shooters with daggers stuck in their stockings, and ... Like one of those Russian nesting dolls, the picture has mysteries within mysteries.
The eclectix gallery where these mysteries unfold is a single room behind a store packed to the gills with curios and gag gifts—lava lamps, spiders in plexiglas, gummy hearts, nerd glasses, R. Crumb devil girl lunchboxes, plastic ants, comic underwear, and ceramic Tiki mug party packs. In El Cerrito, in this unlikely setting, far from the power centers of the art world, without benefit of white walls and the other accoutrements of artistic respectability, is one of the best damn paintings ever painted in the East Bay.
OUT OF THE FILL
Through Aug. 3 at Eclectix Gallery, 7523 Fairmont Ave., El Cerrito. Artist reception 5-8 p.m. July 18.