Many artists are inspired by nature, but few collaborate with it in quite the same way as John Knuth. When you look at his paintings, you see broad swaths of colour that appear to be meticulous impressionistic abstractions. But what you are actually looking at is the vomit of thousands of flies.
To make the paintings, Knuth harvests flies en masse from maggots which he orders online. He creates his paints out of sugar mixed with watercolor pigments, which are then fed to the flies. The specks of colour that appear on Knuth's canvases are what occurs as a result of the flies' natural external digestive process — essentially, regurgitation. The video above, produced for The Museum of Contemporary Art in LA, shows some of the process in action.
Still video frame showing detail from one of Knuth's paintings.
It is not clear how this process affects the lives of the flies, but there's no doubt that some will believe it to be a gratuitous misuse of nature. Damien Hirst took a lot of flack last year for the demise of butterflies used for an installation. House flies are not exactly as beloved as butterflies, so the public reaction may not be as fervent. Still, Knuth's use of living things may at best be distasteful, at worst, cruel.
The resulting works are certainly beautiful though. They reflect a long standing artistic tradition of using uncontrolled processes to form an aesthetic experience. John Cage composed entire scores of music from sets of chance operations. Hans Arp, an early Dadaist, simply dropped pieces of paper and pasted them where they landed to create collages.
Still video frame showing one of Knuth's paintings.
Of course, Knuth controls some aspects of the work such as colour and build-up patterns. He claims to be inspired by the density and atmosphere of of Los Angeles, where he lives and works. While it certainly possible to see those associations while looking at the pieces, they are dwarfed by the physical process Knuth has chosen. Once you decide to make paintings from fly barf, you pretty much forfeit any other subtext you'd like your audience to appreciate.