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Before Brian Burkhardt became an artist, he toiled in the back-breaking fields of east Long Island commercial farms, where his hands were often blistered by pesticides. "I was in my early twenties and picking strawberries with migrant workers," Burkhardt relates. "I was getting these rashes all over my arms from pesticides and fungicides and began to think of how the chemicals would affect the food most people were buying from their supermarket shelves. It was right before the organic craze."
He later started a 14-acre organic farm, where he grew vegetables and flowers, and began selling his harvest at green markets in the concrete jungle of New York. In the winter he made soap to pass the time.
"I was no longer driving a tractor but working the land with my hands," he says. "I began growing flowers to decorate my vegetable booth at the farmers' market, and people started asking me if they were for sale."
Burkhardt went on to grow more than 70 varieties of blossoms, ranging from sunflowers to gladiolus and peonies. "I learned about companion planting and the symbiotic relationship between insects and plants. If you plant tomatoes alongside basil, the basil attracts ladybugs that devour the mites that attack the tomato plants."
At Gallery Diet, Burkhardt's solo show, "Bi(h)ome," offers a left-of-field view of his artistic practice. It features a geodesic dome-cum-studio — the size of a large storage shed — where the artist has been tilling the furrows of his imagination for the past year.
Botanically driven, conceptual in nature, and with a hybrid philosophy in which art and science collide, Burkhardt's opus deeply roots itself in the viewer's mind. "It's a catalogue of everything he has ever created during his career as an artist," Nina Johnson, Gallery Diet's director, explains. "For a long time he was making these really pristine objects of altered species like insects, plants, and jellyfish that looked like they might have come from a museum of natural history. Here he wanted to relate the studio practice with the greenhouse practice — you can see his art metamorphosing as if alive," the dealer adds.
Burkhardt's dome exudes a Dr. Moreau, mad-scientist vibe. It bristles with a cross-pollination of form, color, and inventiveness that evokes the buzz of dragonflies and the crack of seedpods.
"The dome is basically my world," informs the 37-year-old Burkhardt, who built the canvas-and-wooden structure in his Wynwood studio during the past year. "For me, it represents the huge disconnect between going into a gallery and seeing a finished piece of work. Here you can see how the work is created."
He likens the experience to shopping for vegetables at a neighborhood Publix.
"When you go into a supermarket and see tomatoes wrapped in plastic, you don't know if the fruit has been treated with chemicals," Burkhardt says. "I'm showing you what's behind the scenes. The dome is a metaphor for what's in my head."
To him, farming is much the same as the art world. Some seeds bloom while others don't. Likewise some art never makes it out of the studio. He recalls working in a field covered with peonies. "They had these long stems and were crowned with a bud, but they were crawling with ants. They [had] these beautiful, opulent royal petals that were too weak and delicate to break out of their pod. I discovered that the flowers naturally created a sweet nectar that attracted the ants. This helped crack the buds to free the flowers inside. It was a moment of realization for me ... of what the role of a farmer should be. It's a lesson I have applied to art."
When Burkhardt won a scholarship to study in Boston, the first piece of art he created was something called Lumbrisca Terebra T. Burkhardt — which translates to "concrete-burrowing worm" in Latin.
"I name all my works in Latin," the Darwinian prankster laughs. "Before making art, my job was to shovel around in the dirt to find worms and grubs that told me the soil was fertile. Later I began to wonder where the worms would live in a city paved over in concrete."
He began creating a series of plants and animals that had to adapt to contemporary society in order to survive. Inside the gallery, a shopping cart Burkhardt found in Wynwood spills over with a tangled metal tree. He "inoculated" a ratty wooden rocking chair with mushroom spores and will weave a gigantic spider web in Diet's project room. Synthetic gossamer threads will engulf the space during the show.
"It's like nature taking over the room," Johnson says. "Look inside the dome. That banyan tree has been grafted with every species of tree Brian has created during the past 10 years."
The dome's interior brims with butterflies, cocoons, fleshy flora and fauna, and mysterious and magical life forms that reflect a longing for Eden and a communion with nature that many urban dwellers crave.
While putting the finishing touches on his dome, Burkhardt pauses to relate yet another story about his former career.
"Did you know that when you pick tomatoes, your hands get covered in this green sap you can't wash off with soap? The only way to get that stuff off is to crush a tomato in your hands and let the natural acids burn it off."