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Image Consciousness 

Michael Garlington -- an enormously talented art photographer with a penchant for the macabre -- has a drunken, wild-man persona. Or is that a canny self-promoter we see behind the curtain?

Wednesday, Jun 8 2005
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[PART 1, in which the word "naked" is used three times, as well as "whiskey" and "cannonballing."]

Mike Garlington, up-and-coming art photographer, calls. His cell phone isn't working so well. Apparently, he stepped on it while having sex.

"You're coming down to L.A. for the big Steven Cohen opening -- no questions. We'll road trip, stay at a seedy motel, whiskey drinking. It'll be good for the article, don't worry. What do you say? You got a car?"

Garlington has a posse. A sort of misfit/artist/biker gang of photographers, model types, musicians, writers; all friends, all artists in their own right. One gang member, Damien Kalish, has a stack of cheap white shirts and a big black permanent marker so he can wear his thought of the day. Today's shirt is specially prepared for L.A.: "I want to kill Tom Hanks."

"Tom Hanks represents everything wrong with our society. He's a celebration of the bland and mundane," Kalish explains.

In the middle of this warm Los Angeles night, the ragtag troupe appears, unannounced, at the door of the Bel Air estate of one of Garlington's big art patrons. They are searching for a cocktail. After initial befuddlement, the doors are swung wide open and Mike and the gang are offered free run of the home, pool, and liquor for five days and nights.

By 4 a.m., neighbors are phoning in noise complaints, naked people are cannonballing into the pool, and Garlington is gulping Johnnie Walker Gold out of a champagne flute while sitting on the stove wearing only his tighty-whities. Is our gracious host, the art patron, fazed? Nope, he's right alongside, smoking a cigar, sucking it all in, it seems, so he can have a great tale to tell his business friends.

Garlington is drunk. And, now, naked. And insisting everybody else get naked. It takes a lot to satiate him. He'll drink till the alcohol is finished. He's loud and confrontational, crass and honest. And joyous. An earnest little kid who wants everyone to come out and play with him, but whose temper changes by the second. He'll have one of the girls in tears while showing great concern if the rest of us aren't having a great time.

Natalie, a friend along for the ride, watches all this from the hot tub. "It's like that Frida Kahlo quote about Diego Rivera's boorish behavior," she says. "'He's just the way he is. I can't love him any other way.'"

Garlington has me documenting the depravity of the night with a point-and-shoot digital camera. "Just knowing these pictures exist sort of creates a myth about it all. I like that," he says.

The next day, while setting up his one-man show at the Steven Cohen Gallery in Hollywood, Garlington starts tearing up $1,200 prints, rubbing them with sandpaper, and hanging them with a hammer and carpet tacks, all the while throwing red paint over the pristine walls to create an entranceway collage experience. Is Cohen horrified? Not in the least. In fact he accepts Garlington's invitation to carve his initials into a print with an exacto knife.

Is this how people of power and wealth respond to Garlington's audacious bravado? Natalie believes personality is a big part of his allure: "His art is good. But it's him in person that seals the deal. He's the hook, line, and sinker." Garlington appears to be a two-headed, Jekyll-and-Hyde type. At times he's the drunken, boho, fuck-the-establishment artist, but then -- almost strategically -- he can change into the pragmatic businessman. Is this madman persona a gimmick? Is Garlington selling his personality, his unrestrained lifestyle for, say, an all-expenses-paid trip to China?

"Listen, I admit I turn on that wild personality to brighten a moment. [My patron] bought all my photos because he liked them. And he's taking me to China because he likes my vision. And yes, he wants something from me. We have an equal banter. Life is about exchanging knowledge. I'm teaching him photography, he's showing me the joy and wealth he's accumulated. Let's be bohemians together and experience art."


[PART 2, in which there's hootin' and hollerin' and a funny story about a head in a jar.]

A few weeks before the L.A. trip, Garlington is on an inspiration jag. It's goddamn early.

"It's all about planning each day. I wake up and visualize myself doing the actual tasks to accomplish my dream for the day, and then I go and fucking do it, no excuses."

These are the day's options:

1) Go into the woods to retrieve the robot.

2) Bury some guy up to his neck out in a park.

3) Come up with the perfect title for Garlington's first book of photography.

Garlington is assembling the most important show of his career at the prestigious Steven Cohen Gallery in Los Angeles on the walls of his gritty photo studio in San Francisco. I poke around, digging through piles of photos. He doesn't seem to care if I handle the expensive prints; in fact, he encourages it. He's going to staple them to the gallery walls anyway.

Garlington grabs a blue Magic Marker and absent-mindedly colors in the hair of a woman who resembles the Virgin Mary. I discover an old wooden medicine cabinet leaning against the wall in the corner. Glued inside, over torn pieces of an American flag, are portraits of two black guys in Ku Klux Klan hooded robes. Garlington looks up, "Funny story about that ...."

It's hard to determine what is more evocative as art: the Gothic, David Lynch-meets-Brothers Grimm photos of "average" Americans heaped everywhere; the stories behind them; or Mike Garlington himself.

Garlington grew up in Petaluma in the late 1970s, then moved to Marin, got into drugs, and flunked out of high school, all before he turned 15. To support his habits, he got a job as a janitor at Petaluma's grungy rock club, the Phoenix Theater, and it was the accompanying visuals of this dark underbelly -- of kids vomiting and bands doing blow -- that gave form to his darker sensibilities. A decade ago, Garlington's stepdad, David Spinder, shook him out of bed and gave him a career. Spinder owned San Francisco's Spinder Photographic and put Garlington to work in the dark room printing some of the city's finest photographers. "I printed the best of the best and the worst of the worst, and this taught me how to take a great picture."

About The Author

Nathaniel Eaton

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