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John Knuth's Fly Paintings

We speak with the LA-based artist about his unique technique on utilizing common houseflies

by Jonah Samson
on 09 May 2014
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To create the paintings for his "Master Plan" series (on show now at Chicago's Andrew Rafacz Gallery), LA-based artist John Knuth feeds a mixture of sugar and watercolor paint to hundreds of thousands of common houseflies. As the flies eat, they digest externally, and over time they regurgitate millions of colored specks onto the canvas. To control this process, the artist builds boxes that limit the flies’ movements to the surface area of the canvas. While created with a degree of chance, the artist—through research and continued refinement of his process—is largely in command of the works; choosing where and how much paint is applied to each piece. Cool Hunting spoke with the artist to get the buzz on his very unique process.

The fly is traditionally a symbol of decay, disease and even death—what led you to collaborate with these notoriously despised critters?

The fly is part of the order Diptera [from the Greek "di" meaning two, and "ptera" meaning wings] which also includes mosquitoes. The order Diptera is responsible for spreading much pestilence and suffering. Flies are actually remarkably clean insects, but they get a bad rap because of where and what their food sources are. They fill a role in nature as the cleaning crew.

I see the whole process as a metaphor for Los Angeles

I like the idea of a very "base" material transcending its nature. With flies, I am taking a non-social insect and confining them into a small space to work together to create something outside of their nature. The more I worked with the materials, the more aware I became of how the fly’s biology works and what I could do to control the densities and color of the paintings. I see the whole process as a metaphor for Los Angeles.

How so?

I see these paintings relating to LA because hundreds of thousands of unremarkable, non-social insects come together into one area, and then something outside of their nature happens. Something magical that transcends their nature happens. To me this is analogous to Los Angeles. I suppose it is the same as any metropolis, but LA is a constant source of inspiration to me.

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Although you’re able to exercise some control over the final painting with regard to color and density, you need to welcome the unpredictable and uncontrollable. What is your attitude toward chance?

I have an idea of composition, color and density that I am trying to achieve with these paintings. I like the idea of control and also lack of control. The limitations that I put on the flies are minimal, but there are a couple of key things that I am looking for in the compositions; one of which is density in certain areas. I put the cups of paint in the same place every time I feed the flies. This creates a nucleus of paint, and the flyspeck spreads out from there. I also like to encourage a band of unpainted area on the canvas. This occurs when the dead flies start to pile up, making that area un-paintable to the remaining flies. There are also areas where the screen is bunched on the side of the canvas, leaving spots that the flies can’t access. I like that these little anomalies give compositional definition and hint at how the paintings are made.

"Master Plan" at Chicago's Andrew Rafacz Gallery has been extended to 17 May 2014.

Images courtesy of Heather Rasmussen

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