Painting with live flies? John Knuth explores rebirth through nature-based paintings in Southport

"Bright Morning Light" by John Knuth.

“Bright Morning Light” by John Knuth.

Courtesy of Hollis Taggert / Contributed photo

If John Knuth was not an artist, he probably would be a biologist. As a child, he grew up in Minnesota catching snakes and reading Andy Warhol art books. His twin passions for nature and art have shaped his life ever since.

Long fascinated with nature, Knuth, who is now based in Los Angeles, frequently uses unorthodox materials and techniques, which he uses to survey nature and the changing landscapes. A new exhibit, “John Knuth: The Dawn,” on view through July 3 at Hollis Taggart in Southport, explores revitalization and rebirth. While not new, these themes seem especially timely now, as Connecticut and other states open up more fully after over a year of COVID-related restrictions.

“This is sort of like an awakening. I just love the idea that this is like a rebirth, a celebration, and we are all coming out of this gnarly year and able to celebrate,” he said. “Now that the vaccine is rolling out, I have thought about this show as being the metaphorical dawn, or the idea of the sun rising again, as we have sort of all been in hibernation.”

Knuth is well known for his unorthodox flyspeck paintings, where he uses thousands of flies to “paint” artworks for him. Fed a diet of sugar-water laced with acrylic paint, the flies drop remnants of paint onto his canvases.

For this exhibition, viewers will see colors reminiscent of sunrise and the dawn: lots of yellows, blues and pinks. “You’ve seen flyspecks on your kitchen window. What I am doing is just hyper-condensing them. A lot of my work has something to do with nature — a lot of transcendence of nature, or pushing nature in a strange way, to make something magical happen,” he said.

Eggs have long been a metaphor for spring — hence the practice of painting colorful eggs for Easter — and Knuth had boxes of flies painting vivid specks onto ostrich eggs in the gallery during the exhibition’s opening weekend. “I love the egg, as it’s just a great form, so these big ostrich eggs that are brightly painted with acrylic paint and then have the fly specks on top…” he said. “As sculptural forms, they are just gorgeous but then as a metaphorical idea, it is about the cracking open and birth.”

New nature-inspired works in the exhibition, which also relate to recent events, include gilded horseshoe crab shells against blue canvases evocative of the ocean. Knuth eagerly talks of the role horseshoe crabs have in vaccine development, using the sea creature’s copper-based blood with unique coagulating properties that were used to test Covid-19 vaccine purity. Only recently, however, did he decide to incorporate that into his art.

“As an artist, you keep these ideas in your back pocket and think, ‘Well, that’s interesting.’ I’ve known about this horseshoe crab blood for quite a while and when the importance of vaccines became so instrumental in our daily lives, it struck me that this is a perfect time to exalt the crabs.” he said.

Knuth’s paintings, in which he applies a layer of gold leaf, or gilt, onto the crab shells, are reminiscent of the ancient art tradition of religious icon paintings. “They are totally fascinating magical creatures, prehistoric and unchanged for millions of years. I love the idea of these horseshoe crabs really allowing us to happen right now: to hug my mom and being able to travel to see my parents.” he said.

Knuth transverses the invisible divide between low and high art in his artistic process, challenging preconceptions of how art is made while exploring the beauty in nature, in transformation and the universal theme of rebirth.

“We can physically see rebirth in nature and equally nature has for human history held the keys to achieving our own different rebirths,” Knuth said. “‘The Dawn’ has provided me with an avenue to explore these ideas anew and to consider the organic materials and organisms with which I work through a new lens born out of this challenging moment.”

The Hollis Taggart gallery is at 330 Pequot Avenue. For more information, hollistaggart.com or 212-628-4000.

Andrea Valluzzo is a freelance writer.