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Wild at Art 

In a show about collaboration, artists work with bees, trees, flies, and Chinese

Wednesday, May 25 2005
Let's be honest: It's easy to dismiss some contemporary art as bullshit. But John Knuth's paintings are literally made of shit -- fly shit, that is. Knuth encloses ordinary houseflies in his studio, feeds them a solution of nontoxic watercolor paint, and lets them ... express themselves all over several large white canvases. The resulting images look like delicate cousins of Jackson Pollack's famed drip paintings, whose splatters and sprays sprang from the artist's dramatic dance with a paintbrush. In place of Pollack's hand, Knuth substitutes the digestive processes of flies. By comparing the heroic and often egocentric gestures of earlier abstract painters with the bodily product of lowly flies, Knuth deflates the pretentious notion of the artist as brilliant, original auteur.

Knuth's series, titled simply Paintings, is part of a group exhibit called "Social Construction," which purports to investigate "alternative models for artistic production" by presenting works conceived in a "matrix of interdependency and then executed by other organisms." Translation: The participants in this show employ flies, other people, and assorted beavers, bees, and trees to produce their art. In doing so, they cede some artistic control to the forces of nature, science, and economics, and -- in the best examples -- bring art and everyday experience a little closer together.

But seriously, fly shit paintings? Although they can be read as critiques of pompous art world posturing, they sound a bit pretentious themselves -- the latest artistic publicity stunt propped up with an elaborate theoretical explanation. Some of the other items in the show come with equally detailed back stories. In the case of Leah Modigliani's Acquisition, reading about the piece is more thought-provoking than looking at it. Acquisition is a collection of unambitious photorealistic paintings of expensive houses, each neatly framed and labeled with a metal plaque bearing the house's address. At a glance, it's impossible to guess what the work's about: Is it an architectural study? An eccentric painter's collection of dream homes? The exhibition brochure informs us that the houses belong to wealthy Bay Area art collectors and that the paintings are created by Chinese landscape artists, hired by Modigliani to paint from her snapshots. When the paintings are sold, the proceeds are dedicated to a down payment on Modigliani's first home.

Modigliani, like Knuth, removes herself from Acquisition's fabrication, but her piece is complicated by the fact that she puts her name on the work of other artists. Her contribution is the idea, not the physical paintings themselves. This arrangement parallels outsourcing trends in the high-tech sector -- an industry that has helped fuel skyrocketing Bay Area housing prices. This dynamic raises questions about the relationship between cheap overseas labor and the inflated art and real estate markets, reminding us that the luxuries of art collecting and Bay Area homeownership are to some degree products of the exploitation of unequal global relationships. By using the proceeds of her project to buy her own home, Modigliani is complicit in these inequities, suggesting that art is just another market commodity.

Compared to these dense layers of meaning, Barbara Bartos' Philosopher's Stone is elegantly simple. The installation consists of two hollow plastic forms, each shaped like one of the two lobes of the brain. Each lobe is connected to the outdoors and to a platform below it via clear plastic tubing; inside the tubing (and circulating freely in the air outside) are hundreds of live bees. The piece gives literal form to the phrase "bee in your bonnet," but it's also intended as an organic illustration of how our thinking is shaped over time by outside influences. Over the course of the exhibit, the bees will collect pollen and build a site-specific hive inside the lobes -- a structure as individual as each human brain.

Knuth, Modigliani, and Bartos all relinquish artistic control to other organisms -- whether insects or people -- with provocative results. But not every work in the show successfully supports this curatorial vision. Philip Ross' Triple Now Power is a triangular arrangement of three slices of redwood tree, joined together in the middle so that their growth rings -- the striations on the inside of the tree that can be used to determine its age -- align. Ross arranged the conjoined growth rings after the trees were cut down; it's not as if the trees created such an unusual pattern themselves. While Triple is visually beautiful, it's not clear how Ross' effort differs from that of any other sculptor looking for meaningful forms in a natural material.

Conversely, Lee Walton's Red Ball: Manhattan involves real live human collaboration, but it's simply uninteresting. Professing to have "fallen in love" with a little red ball, Walton has created a Web site (, viewable on a laptop in the gallery, at which visitors can submit suggested locations in Manhattan where he should photograph it. He will then take pictures of the ball at spots selected by the site's voters. While the piece subscribes to the open-ended ethos espoused by the exhibit's curators -- Walton lets others direct his work -- it's so one-dimensional that it fails to make us care.

Internet artworks like Walton's often bank on the relative novelty of the medium to garner interest in otherwise boring projects. So it's surprising that the best work in the exhibit is a Web project, too. It's also the only one billed as a collaboration. Communimage ( is the online project of an art collective called c a l c (tOmi Scheiderbauer, Teresa Alonso Novo, Luks Brunner, and Malex Speigel) and the artist Johannes Gees. In progress since 1999, Communimage operates on a simple premise: Give visitors a square in a giant grid into which they can upload whatever image they choose. The resulting cacophony of visual information -- represented in the gallery with a sprawling digital print -- includes everything from baby photos to cartoon characters to porn. Some contributors commandeer several adjacent squares to compose one large image -- a giant footprint, a long URL -- while others riff on their neighbors' images, distorting faces and discoloring drawings to start little visual conversations. There is an inordinate number of cat photos. Images of condoms rub shoulders with Pokémon, and a man's head morphs, square by square, into a strawberry.

It's endlessly fascinating to speculate where one person's territory ends and another's begins; the pictures run in all directions, jammed up against each other like a collective stream of consciousness. It's sheer visual garbage, but strangely beautiful in its variety and serendipity. While the rest of the works in "Social Construction" flirt with the idea of collaboration, Communimage is the real deal. A metaphor for the Web itself, it offers a truly communal vision -- messy, fractured, unpredictable, yet endlessly rich, inclusive, and alive.

About The Author

Sharon Mizota


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