Los Angeles

Decomposed Compositions: John Knuth's Fly Paintings

In Partnership with MOCAtv
MOCAtv is a new, contemporary art video channel, developed as a digital extension of the education and exhibition programming of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

By Drew Tewksbury

The fly gets no respect.

But why should it? In art, it is a creature symbolizing decay, disease, and death; a flying grim reaper with six legs and over-sized eyes. Director David Cronenberg's remake of "the Fly" depicts the abhorrent de-evolution of a scientist into this base creature, a being driven by instinct alone. His humanity dissolves, like everything subjected to his acidic spit. In the spastic song "Human Fly" by snarling rockabilly punks the Cramps, lead growler Lux Interior takes it one step further: "Well I'm a human fly / It's spelled F-L-Y / I say buzz, buzz, buzz, and it's just because / I got a garbage brain, it's drivin' me insane."

In reality, the fly is a threat and all-too-real reminder that everything ends. For farmers, when a shroud of files in the distance darkens the sky, those millions of tiny harbingers reveal an apocalyptic future. Pestilence is followed by a shadow of flies.

In a new MOCAtv documentary, Los Angeles artist John Knuth unveils his collaboration with an unusual partner: the humble fly. He feeds flies watercolor paint and sugar, then as the insect digests externally, a small mark is left behind. The myriad marks become impressionistic abstractions. "I started working with the flies because I was curious about how flies spread disease and how they digest," Knuth says, "The more I worked with them the more I got interested in the process of condensing them to make something beautiful and beyond their nature. To me, these paintings have become analogous to Los Angeles. There are denser areas and there are marks that sprawl around the canvas."

Knuth rebrands the fly as not a foe, but an ally, and perhaps he asks us to reconsider the meaning we've ascribed to them. Perhaps flies also represent a life reborn, a world on the precipice of what lies beyond the present. They are the prime movers in the inertia of existence, caught up in that cycle ushering organic matter past life, back to the soil again. Matter, after all, doesn't disappear, it transforms. In Knuth's ecosystem, the fly's biological machinery becomes an art-making tool that turns a revolting process into something beautiful.

Artbound recently caught up with Knuth to discuss the intricacies of working with living creatures; whether his practice gives him a God complex; and how he makes a composition from decomposition.

Photo: Andy Featherston.

Take us through the physical process of creating one of these works. How do you start and when do you know that it is finished?

When flies eat they digest externally so they are in a constant state of regurgitation. I limit what the flies eat to watercolor paint with sugar in it. Each of the marks on the paintings is a flyspeck. You can often see flyspeck inside your house, near your kitchen windows is a good place to find them. I create structures that limit the surface area they land on to the surfaces of the canvases.

Flies are a non-social insect so they would usually make the same density of marks in nature. Bees and ants are social insects and they live and work together to create a nest or a hive.

I start each painting with colors and compositions that I have in mind. The paintings for the MOCAtv video are a group called "Made in Los Angeles." I chose the color palette based on colors of the L.A. sky. I used a lot of blue, smoggy grey and black backgrounds. For the watercolor/flyspeck palette I used a lot of similar colors along with oranges, yellows and some reds with the idea that they are sunset or smog colors.

I have a pretty good idea of how many flies I am going to use for each composition. For these paintings I used over 200,000 flies. I have been working towards higher density marks for the paintings.

John Knuth, "Sunset," 2013, Watercolor/Flyspeck on canvas, 23 x 30 in.

Where do you get all the files? Any connection with your piece that utilized massive mounds of sugar?

I buy the flies from a company online. They arrive as thousands of maggots in to-go food containers. When I open them up they resemble containers of rice.

With the sugar sculptures (Sugarland) I pour hundreds of pounds of sugar on light bulbs. The heat from the bulbs causes the sugar to caramelize and make small volcanoes of caramelized sugar. I like that both of these process make something that transcends their base materials. When the sugar caramelizes, it fills the gallery with incredible smelling smoke. They are similar in that I am putting a process in place to make a kind of base-level alchemy.

Photo: Andy Featherston.

John Knuth, "Western," 2013, Watercolor/Flyspeck on canvas, 18 x 24.

It seems that you're interested in making living creatures as a kind of collaborator with your work. Why did you choose to work with flies specifically, and what other organisms can you imagine working with?

I started working with the flies because I was curious about how flies spread disease and how they digest. The more I worked with them the more I got interested in the process of condensing them to make something beautiful and beyond their nature. To me these paintings have become analogous to Los Angeles. There are denser areas and there are marks that sprawl around the canvas.

John Knuth, "Rampart," 2013, Watercolor/Flyspeck on canvas, 24 x 30.

What role does chance (or chaos) play in your work?

The whole process is a chance-based process but I do have much more control than is apparent in the paintings; colors, build ups etc. I do like the idea of making something that is beyond the control of the maker.

When I first heard about your "fly" works, I thought that it would be more akin to Damien Hirst's sculpture "A Thousand Years," and the wall pieces he would make from the corpses of dead flies, or Hubert Duprat's gold pieces forged by caddisfly larvae. But it seems, to me, that these particular works are almost a form of impressionism, perhaps the pointillism of Seurat, etc. What other works of art influenced the final aesthetics of the piece?

I do really like Damien Hirst work and those Duprat works are really beautiful. With these paintings I think a lot about how Seurat and Monet use color. They way they will layer different colors of similar tone to make the paintings visually stimulating. There is an artist named Charles Bierderman that I look at a lot on how he uses color.

I also think about the paintings as being a sculptural process. It is a material manipulation. They are very physical and bizarre in their making. I think that the director Andy Featherston did a great job bringing that across in the video. It is a strange sensation to feel the wind from the wings of 40,000 houseflies on your hand when you feed them. During the process the sounds from the flies are also like nothing else.

Photo: Andy Featherston.

John Knuth, "The 101," 2013, Watercolor/Flyspeck on canvas, 72 x 48.

Also it seems that your work removes the role of the artist as an active participant in the actual product. It's more akin to, perhaps, how some religious people imagine a non- interventionist god; a sort of behind the scenes force that gets the process (like the creation of the universe or whatever) rolling then observes from a distance. How did you envision your interaction with this piece?

I like the god analogy! There is some humor in these paintings. I think of these paintings as being my paintings. Much of my work is about transcending materials both physically and poetically. I am very much the maker of them. The flies are the material and the helpers.

John Knuth | Photo: Andy Featherston.

John Knuth, "The 5," 2013, Watercolor/Flyspeck on canvas, 72 x 48.

You also have created works that include cardboard signs purchased from homeless people. How does that piece fit in with the way you believe artists should interact with a work?

I still purchase signs from homeless people. I think they are mostly just a personal collection now. I started buying those at a time in my life when I was financially struggling. I liked the idea that they became portraits of the people who were using them. I also liked the idea that it was part of a process of somebody making them. They at a base level are drawings. I like the idea of me purchasing them and the signs becoming found object works.

What are you working on next?

I will continue to make fly paintings. It is a long-term series of works. I have been making a lot of paintings using smoke flares in the desert and in abandoned mining shacks. I have also been taking photos of the smoke flares as they billow across the night sky.

John Knuth, "Haunta Virus, " Emergency Smoke Flare and Acrylic on Canvas, 2013, 36 x 48 in.

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About the Author

Drew Tewksbury is a Los Angeles-based cultural journalist, editor, photographer, and multimedia producer. Tewksbury is the managing editor / co-producer for KCET-TV's Artbound, a transmedia project providing in-depth arts/cultur...
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