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A Surreal Paper Dress for Susan Sarandon

Burning Man artists Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti make strange new worlds out of the simplest materials available.

Well, here's Susan Sarandon looking nothing less than regal in a gown of paper butterflies and flowers. It takes a lot of guts to dress a movie star in paper and cardboard, but those are the materials Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti work with to create stunning portraits. Now, their gothic collection of images staged with recycled materials and printed paper are on display at the McLoughlin Gallery San Francisco.

Garlington and Bertotti’s show, The Portals of Wonder, is centered around evocative black-and-white photographs presented in lavish three-dimensional frames. Many of the decorative elements and textures are extracted from the duo’s own photos, printed on cardboard or just paper. Almost all the rest comes from Recycle Town, the recycling dump near their Petaluma, California studio. In this show, one photo is framed in broken china, layered and fractured like remnants of the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Another, an alluring image representing Frida Kahlo, is framed in upholstery trimmings: velvety, silky cords that invite you to stroke them.

Paper dress worn by Susan Sarandon next to the Portal of wonder, 2016, photo courtesy of McLoughlin Gallery, San Francisco

“Anybody can do this, if they think of it,” Garlington says. “Because it is just cardboard, paper, junk and imagination.”

Bertotti and Garlington have worked together since 2014, when they began building the now-famed Totem of Confessions for Burning Man. The intricately detailed, cathedral-like structure was where Sarandon scattered Timothy Leary’s ashes—but Sarandon, in fact, helped build the Totem, too.

“Susan Sarandon found us while we were fundraising for the Totem of Confessions,” Garlington says. “She had seen our Photo Chapel in 2013 and liked it. She wanted to put some of Timothy Leary’s ashes into the Totem, and asked if there would be a place for them."

Susan Sarandon in paper dress, 2016

“Later that year I asked her if she’d come out and model some paper dresses we would build for her. No money changed hands, it was just two people making art. It was cool to see something go from an idea, to do you think she would do it?, to the finished piece,” Garlington says.

Bertotti and Garlington rarely plan exactly what a piece will look like; instead, they start with a theme, and then hit the dump to find the right materials. The mandalas above are made with glassware and liquor bottles, resin-glued to wood crosses and topped with salt and pepper shakers. After posing for the center photo, Bertotti then smashed the mirror and glued the pieces back together to create the frame. She foraged for roses, dried them, and placed them around the outside. “I like to combine organic with order,” she says. “Order and chaos.”

Altar inside the Totem of Confessions, 2015, Burning Man

The two artists have very different backgrounds: Garlington started in his stepfather’s photography studio as a teenager and has consistently worked in the art world. He's even helped build some of Burning Man’s legendary temples. Bertotti, on the other hand, had instinct, but little experience. What they have in common is a work ethic: they routinely get up at 4 AM to hit the studio by 5, working through the sunrise. They work long hours, and they work fast: the wall-sized Portal of Wonder, created for this show, took just a week to finish.

Mandala Mudda (left), Twins (center), Mandala Fadda (right), 2016, photo courtesy of McLoughlin Gallery, San Francisco

Even pieces like the Portal of Wonder, however, are largely unplanned. There’s no sketch, just an idea. With two people working on something that involves construction and symmetry, that means constant communication. “We have to know exactly what the other person is doing,” Bertotti explains. “We need to know where the screws are, so we can disassemble and reassemble things.”

Totem of Confessions, 2015, Burning Man

It’s rare, in this world, to find someone who shares your vision and can help you bring it to life. Garlington and Bertotti talk a lot about “the horror and the wonder”—the twin forces that weave through their work. And it is a binary world: black and white, beauty and depravity, good and evil, old and new. Perhaps having two perspectives on a single work is what makes it so fascinating.

Natalia Bertotti and Michael Garlington, 2016

The Portals of Wonder also features video works by Pia Maria Martin, and is open through October 29 at the McLoughlin Gallery in downtown San Francisco. A film about the collaboration with Susan Sarandon, created by Sutro Studios, will be shown at Art Basel Miami this year along with a selection of Garlington’s photography. Click here to learn more about the exhibition.

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