As part of Color Fields, a new exhibit at MassArt featuring 13 internationally-recognized artists whose diverse works celebrate color in its many forms, L.A.-based Jon Knuth has created a series of paintings in collaboration with some very unusual helpers: common houseflies. Knuth feeds vibrant watercolor paint to the flies, which they then transfer to via flyspeck to his canvases. We got Knuth on the line to talk about his unlikely coworkers and his unique vision in preview of the exhibit, which is on display through March 7.
I’ve always had an interest in science and biology and nature—I always use this line that I grew up catching snakes and looking at Andy Warhol books. I initially started using the flies in the buildup to the second Iraq war, it was 2002, I guess. There was all this talk about biological warfare and I’d been reading about flies and how they spread disease, and I was interested in making my own little biological warfare air force. So, there’s this whole parlor trick where you can tie a little paper airplane to a horsefly, or tie a hair to a housefly and keep it as a pet, so I was cutting little paper airplanes out of cigarette paper and tying them to flies and letting them fly around the room and the gallery. And I started seeing how they were actually spreading their biological contents, how they digest food. So it started as a way of using flyspeck as a way to transfer different materials.
They’re remarkably durable. I’ve become like a Miyagi of houseflies—I can grab them out of midair now. You use a long piece of hair and tie a slipknot in it, and then you just put it around the flies neck, tighten the slipknot and, with a little dab of superglue you glue the paper airplane to the hair.
Yes, to me it became about transcendence of materials, using something very base to make something beautiful. And I also like them as a metaphor for the megalopolis or L.A. The compositions are like a million specks on a plane. For me, that’s like flying over the San Gabriel Mountains and the L.A. basin and you see L.A. infinitely sprawled out forever. So I like this metaphor of taking something not special and condensing it in a way that has it do something transcendent. So, if you think about it like an idea of Los Angeles—you take 10 million un-special things and something special comes out of it. It could be any city, really. I also get turned on by the fly thing, because there are a lot of bugs that make structures or make architecture, like ants make colonies, bees make hives. And so those are social insects that work together for their survival. And flies are non-social insects. They only come together when they’re having sex.
No, I still kill those little motherfuckers all the time. [laughs] I mean, yes and no. They’re still pests. One thing I’ve learned about flies, though, is that they’re remarkably clean. Flies are only gross when you introduce something gross into they’re diet—like dog shit, or a dead raccoon or something. So I work with a clean colony of flies and I’m always amazed that they’re remarkable tidy.
It doesn’t, as far as I can tell. I talked with an entomologist one time and asked him, ‘Am I causing any harm to these flies?’ And his first reaction was like ‘who cares? They’re flies.’ But I was like, what if PETA comes after me? And the only thing that he could come up with was that they’re living normal life spans, and they’re sexually active so I always joke that, you know, if you’re living a normal life span and you’re sexually active, life’s pretty good.
When you first started the project, were there any initial bugs you had to work out—pun intended? I’ve been doing these things for a decade now and they’ve just started to take off…but you know it was, like, flies getting out, or figuring out the right paint combination. The paint I use is a very robust, heavily pigmented acrylic paint. And something as simple as now that I’ve got a bigger budget, I can afford more flies. And [figuring out] how to build the contraptions to keep the flies. I’ve got two canvases that I prop upright, face-to-face, separated by about 6 inches. And then I staple screen to the back of them, so I condense the area that the flies land to the surface of the canvas.
I’m very specific with the colors and the compositions. So, I don’t do much to disrupt the compositions, I try to keep them as natural as possible. But if you look at the canvases there are these blank spots at the bottom, and that’s where the dead flies pile up. And there are sort of anomalies at the sides, at the borders, and that’s where the screen bunches. So I like that are these hints to how they’re made, whether or not anyone actually picks up on them.
I’ve been using a lot of reds and warm, hot colors—reds and oranges, and a lot of metallics. I like the metallics because, as cheesy as it is, it gives a sense of alchemy or specialness. And I like the reds and the yellows because, to me, it gives the idea of transformation, like the phoenix rising from the ashes, or something on fire. So I’ve been running really hot with my colors.
Find more info about Color Fields at massart.edu/Galleries/BakalarandPaine/Color_Fields