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Video still of albino morph California king snakes with installation view of ‘John Knuth: Base Alchemy’ at 5 Car Garage (video by Andy Featherston)

LOS ANGELES — Upon entering Emma Gray’s 5 Car Garage, you must step delicately over writhing white masses to get a good look at the paintings. This is John Knuth’s Base Alchemy, where albino morph California king snakes, bred specifically for their unnatural coloring, twist and turn on the floor while being reflected in the works above, which were created through the manipulation of fly droppings and mylar. Each exhibition element exists outside of nature, snakes and paintings guided by man in hobbyist pursuit.

The ten paintings in the show are divided equally between those made of flyspeck and mylar. For the latter, Knuth took up materials found in camping survival kits: signal flares and the mylar itself, typically used for emergency blankets. The mylar is stretched taut, with areas melted by a process of Knuth burning through the surface with streaks from the signal flare, exposing reds, golds, and blacks that match the base colors also found beneath the flyspeck paintings. The mylar offers a perfect reflection of the exhibition and visitor, until you hit on the large tears, where the picture warps. The painted colors seen cutting through the silver surface seem like an apocalyptic aftermath of the futuristic material stretched on top.

John Knuth, “Base Alchemy” (detail, 2014), acrylic and flyspeck on canvas, 84 x 48 in (photo by Heather Rasmussen) (click to enlarge)

In a different way, Knuth’s flyspeck paintings also take up the question of survival. The works expose the byproduct of his collaboratory subjects, flies raised by the artist from their larvae state and fed a controlled mixture of sugar and acrylic paint. The 500,000 tiny collaborators fly around the large, pre-painted canvases and leave new marks each time they land. Small spots cover each surface like a gradient, appearing almost like snake scales when viewed at nose’s length. Thin, horizontal marks untouched by fly excrement at the top and bottom of each canvas point to where it was secured during creation, within coops built by Knuth to house the flies. The insects play out their entire life cycle within these contraptions, their existence based solely on producing droppings for the paintings.

Usually unsocial creatures, flies would normally not be gathered at such a close proximity, but Knuth says he “like[s] the idea that I am taking a non-social insect and having hundreds of thousands of them work together to create something beautiful that transcends their base nature.” Although the concept of the collected mass seems beautiful, it’s still a bit difficult to transcend the idea of the paintings emerging from a swarm’s defecation. All the works in the series do, however, seem to display a similar pattern of specks, which points to some sort of collective consciousness in the unnaturally grouped insects, or at least a pattern of cooperation when thrust into tight parameters.

The albino snakes (which are not at the gallery during the entire run of the exhibition) similarly represent the removal of creatures from their natural habitat. Although they are native to the Southern California basin, the snakes incorporated into the show would never be able to survive outside of human care: selective breeding renders them camouflage-less, their survival stripped from their surface. Given that the gallery space is a former garage, the snakes actually seem like the most logical element in Knuth’s exhibition: they are expected visitors to cool carports. The paintings instead stand out as the odd inhabitants, switching roles with the aestheticized snakes.

Installation view, ‘John Knuth: Base Alchemy’ at 5 Car Garage (photo by Wild Don Lewis)

The exhibition’s garage context also works well in expressing the apocalyptic nature of the mylar paintings, which look as though they’re meant for a nuclear bunker. Although their material lends itself to severity, the mylar concept seems the most tame out of the three exhibition elements — the reflective surface a mere back-up for the ideas found in the other components. Human influence looks most profound when seen in the alteration of other creatures, rather than in reminders of our own hard-to-envision demise.

John Knuth: Base Alchemy continues by appointment (contact info@emmagrayhq.com) at 5 Car Garage (Santa Monica, CA) through October 10.

Kate Sierzputowski

Kate Sierzputowski is freelance writer based in Chicago. Fascinated by artists' studio processes, she founded the website INSIDE\WITHIN to physically explore the creative spaces of emerging and established...