John Knuth's West Adams studio doesn't smell like wet paint and linseed oil — it smells like fly shit and gunpowder. Knuth has been a dedicated artist and curator for a long time, the last dozen or so years in Los Angeles, but it wasn't until a MOCAtv video of his rather unusual painting method went viral in 2013 that he finally had his first big break. See, he's that guy who paints with fly puke. Using primed canvas to line cages full of buzzing houseflies, he feeds them water-based pigment and waits for nature to take its course.
This process, while definitely disgusting, produces lush, luminous, absolutely gorgeous paintings in a pointillist style of “all-over” abstraction — a format in which the entire surface of the canvas is covered in pigment and dense detail, with no centralized aspect of the picture and no place for the eye to rest. It's very much on-trend in today's art world.
As compelling as this process is, it is but one of the ways in which Knuth reinvents the definition of painting — what it is made of and what it can do. His current exhibition at the Armory Center for the Arts, through April 10, is part of an ongoing series about painters who are pushing the boundaries of the medium, and consists of a series of smoke-flare paintings. Knuth makes them by preparing painted canvas grounds, or stretching metallic space blankets as though they were canvases, and having at them with lighted nautical distress flares. The resulting burning, perforating, melting and discoloration do the work of painting, creating expressive abstract compositions with exciting surfaces and shapes energized by chaos.
Like the flies, it's an example of coaxing art out of regular materials, and getting them somewhere beautiful.
Knuth is a Midwesterner with a taste for urban alt-country punk and underground music and for the art scenes in places like Minneapolis (think Midwest Noise, Thrill Jockey Records).
His earliest experiments with living flies were in the early 200s, before he moved to Los Angeles to attend art school. As an earnestly satirical response to post-9/11 American militarism and the threat of biological warfare, he conceived of an “army” of flies — more of an air force, really — in which he tied teeny-tiny paper airplanes to individual insects and gently deployed them in aerial exercises.
Knuth kept these as quasi-pets. And the first paintings made using fly puke were not exhibited until his 2005 MFA show at USC.
Are the flies like the armies of studio assistants hired by famous artists?
“I first fed them junk food,” Knuth says, “but I had an epiphany about transcending the nature of the materials, finding a way to transform the baseness of the flies into something lyrical, and meaningful.”
And, of course, it's the choice to start feeding them acrylic paint that is what, despite the rampant unconventionality, makes them paintings and not something else, like proxy performances, or “mixed media.” Acrylic and flyspeck on canvas.
So are the flies stand-ins for the paintbrush? Are they the same as the armies of studio assistants whom folks like Mark Kostabi and Takashi Murakami famously have executing works on their behalf? Are they collaborators? Or just another technique?
For Knuth, it's all of the above and something else as well. “The fly paintings are about a filthy path to a beautiful aesthetic, and really, they are about the Megalopolis. Flies are nonsocial insects, not like ants or bees,” he explains. “They only deal with each other to have sex, and other than that they do their own thing.”
In that sense, both the technique and the result are a metaphor for social density, and the unlikely ways in which the city creates accidental, toxic beauty — such as a lit-up skyline, or the sprawl of L.A.'s carpet of light pollution coming over the San Gabriel Pass. Humans are both social and nonsocial — we live alone but on top of one another. Like the paintings, the city, too, is both filthy and beautiful.
As with the flies, the smoke-flare paintings have a more narrative level of meaning and symbolism, as well as a consciousness of the performative, YouTube-ready spectacle that the process involves. “I sometimes think of the flares in terms of how they are used — they are someone's final gesture, their last cry for help and attention,” Knuth says. This emotional strangeness is underscored by the fact that, for reasons of adventure, aesthetic and public safety, he tends to make these pieces in remote desert locations, miles from nowhere.Knuth also has been working with director Andy Featherston to capture the process in videos. The billowing, bright orange smoke of the nautical flares contrasts powerfully with the blue sky and dry land, and the sight of these clouds across great expanses of empty, ruggedly heroic terrain is downright surreal. And the video they made inside an abandoned mining shack near Death Valley is both alarming and gently mesmerizing.
Knuth doesn't stop there. Other ways he paints include slicing stretched, highly reflective metallic Mylar. These often large-scale, twinkling “paintings” replace traditional line and brushstroke imagery with the gashes of a knife — but once again, the results re-create the look and feel of abstraction, with the added narrative of their mysterious making.
His recent show at 5 Car Garage featured (nonpoisonous) albino California king snakes winding their way across the gallery floor, which he called kinetic sculptures. Yes, there's a video — showing their abstract lines, curves and motions and forging extra-strange relationships with the “paintings” on the wall.
“Expanding on an Expansive Subject, Part 5: John Knuth, Desert Dispertion” is at Armory Center for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena; through April 10. armoryarts.org.
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