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By: Eliot Fearey

He is not a mad scientist; in fact, he insists that you not call him one. Yet I can’t help but view artist Brian Burkhardt as a synthesis of Dr. Frankenstein and Jabir Ibn Haiya, the 8th century alchemist. Burkhardt hit the art world in 2005 with his first solo exhibition, “Office Plants,” and has since exhibited a body of sculpture that addresses issues such as genetic engineering and the human manipulated redirection of natural selection. In the spirit of Haiya’s The Book of Stones, he creates deceptively realistic plant and animal sculptures that serve as a warning to the precarious state of the environment. Disguised as specimens that you might find in the Museum of Natural History, Burkhardt’s work is both eerie and fantastical. It asserts his belief that nature is the primary source of beauty as well as his concern that modern society has become distracted by the temptations of the material world.

Foxglove Macadaptus - B. Burkhardt
Photo: Gallery Diet/Miami, Judi Rotenberg Gallery/Boston
(click to enlarge)

Thirsty: As a younger artist you’ve created a body of work that is both conceptually and aesthetically very cohesive. How did you arrive at the natural world as your primary point of focus?

Brian Burkhardt: Well, let me give you a little insight into how I got here. Before I started working as an artist, I was working on a seventy-acre commercial farm on the east end of Long Island, where I started to develop rashes on my arms from the herbicides and pesticides. At the age of about twenty-six I made the decision to transition to organic farming as well as go back to college. I enrolled in what I thought was going to be an easy painting class, but actually turned out to be super demanding. At the end of the course I showed one of my paintings to the dean of the school, who basically told me that I could go anywhere I wanted with art. I remember bursting into tears when he said it because I was at such a crossroads in my life, having worked so hard at farming I wasn’t sure I could leave the field. The thought of becoming an artist had never crossed my mind.

After college I enrolled at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston. Basically the concerns I had while farming carried over into my art. I was always thinking about worms, they are a good indicator of what’s up with your soil, whether you need more bone meal, blood meal, lime or phosphate in the soil. My first piece was a sculpture of a concrete eating worm, which I presented as if it were a true dissected specimen. This was during the Big Dig. From there I’ve been dealing with these specimens that overlap both the fantasy world of my imagination and the current balance between the natural and human world.

Thirsty: Recently nature has become a huge focus in the art world, “After Nature” just opened at the New Museum and you’ve been in a bunch of group shows like “Nature Anew” and “Zoologia Fantastica.” How do you see your work fitting in with the group of artists who share your interest?

Burkhardt: I guess what I am trying to do is create work that is not too far fetched from what could actually be. To some extent it is fantasy driven, but it makes people wonder whether or not the species are actually real. That’s both my hope and my intent. I want people to wonder “Does that exist? Can it exist?” There is a group of us concerned with the effects of greenhouse gases and genetic engineering, but I’m really focusing on what can happen or what is just around the corner in the plant world.

Pisaster parasitic adaptus B. Burkhardt (the white host) with bio-intelligent barnacles
Photo: Gallery Diet/Miami, Judi Rotenberg Gallery/Boston
(click to enlarge)

Thirsty: My favorite work of yours comes out of the “Office Plant” series—what is the history behind that project?

Burkhardt: You know, I walked into an office one day in Boston and saw all of these people on their cell phones, fax machines and computers. On the other side of the office was a cluster of dying window plants; nobody ever remembered to water them. The people were so involved in other things that these plants, in order to survive, had to adapt to the components of an office, for example halogen lighting and tangled phone lines. I got the feeling that the plants in the office were a little disgruntled in a way—a little frustrated that they had to adapt. I wanted to translate this idea to my sculpture. So, with the example of the Foxglove Macadaptus piece, I found an extra Mac cord in my studio and then it was this back and forth thought process trying to visually articulate: what the Mac cord represents, the visual aesthetic behind Mac and how an office plant might adapt to a Mac cord. So, the works that came out of this series are very eerie because they aren’t too far from reality.

Thirsty: To some extent, you are throwing out the ideas of natural and sexual selection. What do you think that Darwin would say about your work?

Burkhardt: That’s a pretty heavy question. In terms of survival of the fittest, I feel like there are changes that are going on in the environment and at the end of the day plants and animals have to adapt. I think that on many of these specimens, it is survival of the fittest and we have to respond to the way plants are adapting to new environments. A few years ago, in response to off shore dumping, I created a series of starfish that attached themselves to cell phones and grew bio-intelligent barnacles. Pollution is affecting aquatic life and how can I not respond to that?

Thirsty: I’d love to know what your studio looks like.

Burkhardt: I’ve just moved down to Miami and am working in a shared space with two other artists. Personally, I have about 850 square feet, which I’ve converted into a lab for my upcoming show at Gallery Diet during Miami Basel. I’ve built a 12’ x 10’ geodesic dome, which houses my entire studio practice. The purpose of the project is to reference the parallels between the farming and art world; the greenhouse is analogous to the studio and a seed is analogous to an idea. Some of my ideas will germinate and make it to the farmer’s market and others will not. There are a lot of misconceptions about the art world, specifically about the working process, and I want people to understand that the work they see on the walls of a gallery is not the same as they would see in my studio.

Dome (click to enlarge)

Thirsty: You started out working in 2D and have since moved over to sculpture.

Burkhardt: When I was accepted into art school, it was for illustration. It’s kind of hard to explain, but when I started to work in 3D there was this dialogue that happened between my hands and head. My hands knew what my head wanted to do and my head knew what my hands wanted to do, it was very different from anything else. For me it is all about having a relationship with the materials and that is very exciting. The other thing about sculpture is that nothing is ever a mistake.

Thirsty: What do you mean?

Burkhardt: There is one example where I spent sixty hours working on the piece and, at the end, took a heat gun to it. It became completely distorted and, for a second, I thought that the piece was destroyed. But, I realized that in applying extreme heat to gel caps, the kind that Echinacea of St. John’s Wart comes in, I can “cook up” these really amazing flower like blooms. Sometimes there will be a situation where I’ll think, “man I fucked that up,” but I can usually turn that around into something positive. My working process is very experimental and I always try to learn something from any mishap that may occur.

Thirsty: What materials are you using these days?

Burkhardt: Well, when I started out, I was just using organic materials, ones that you wouldn’t necessarily use. For example, I used to collect hair and dust lint from the dryer and use that. Or, I would save cardboard boxes and birthday cards, shred them up, put them in the blender and make paper out of them. So, for me, it was just about becoming resourceful and using what I had. Now I am using only synthetic materials. That is the ultimate challenge. I like the irony of creating something “natural” out of something synthetic.


All opinions expressed by Eliot Fearey are solely her own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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