“Transsexual sandwich” (1995) | Pippa Garner / Courtesy of the author

Pippa Garner is a fabulous, mercurial artist with an extrasensory attunement to cultural shifts, a habit of self-mythologization, and a taste for absurdity. 

Now in her 80s, she is experiencing something of a renaissance in visibility—and notoriety. Garner made a name for herself in the Los Angeles art scene of the 1970s and 1980s with automotive interventions and a series of “Labor Saving Devices” (LSDs), which included winking consumer necessities such as the portable Shower-In-A-Can, the Privatime Personal Privacy Booth, and the lightweight Escaladder for domestic use. But she is perhaps best known as a trans artist who modified her gender by means of “hormone hacking” and surgical collaborations, which she documented and incorporated into her practice beginning in about 1986.

Garner’s art received little serious institutional attention between 1986 and 2014. This isn’t to say that she ever stopped making work—quite the contrary. She became something of a local legend in San Francisco, Santa Fe, and Los Angeles, the cities where she lived during this 30-year period.

Then, in 2015, Garner’s work was included in a booth curated by Sam Parker for the New York art fair Spring/Break which inaugurated her “rediscovery” beyond the West Coast and launched the Pippa-moment we are the beneficiaries of today. This January her inclusion in the 2024 Whitney Biennial, that prestigious Rorschach test for the American art world, was announced. 

Thanks to ambitious recent exhibitions and publications, the puckish spirit that has animated Garner’s work over the course of her career is newly visible to audiences in all its permutations.  Her oeuvre is the product of a lifelong, gonzo investigation into questions like: What is a commodity? What is a system? How do commodity units and systems interact? How can the artist intervene? A self-described hacker, she approaches gender and the self as commodities ripe for intervention. 

Last year, East Coast admirers had two major Pippa Garner exhibitions to savor. 

$ell Your $elf opened in June 2023 at Art Omi in Ghent, New York, and laid claim to the superlative designation “first New York institutional solo exhibition” of Garner’s work. This survey show, curated by Sara O’Keefe with Guy Weltchek, spanned all six decades of the artist’s career, and was accompanied by a monographic catalog co-published by Art Omi and Pioneer Works.  

Act Like You Know Me, co-curated by Fiona Duncan and Maurin Dietrich, opened at White Columns, in New York City in November. This, the “first American presentation of the traveling solo exhibition” by Garner, had recently completed its European tour, which included stops at Kunstverein München, Kunsthalle Zürich, and Frac Lorraine. Act Like You Know Me, and the accompanying monograph of the same name, presented work created between the late 1960s and 2010, using the multi-venue project as an opportunity to catalog, historicize, and contextualize works that can be culled from the archive, such as it is, of an artist who treats all objects, including her own art, as easy-come-easy-go. 

Misc. Philippa Venus Garner was born in Evanston, Illinois, on May 22, 1942 at 3:45 a.m. Central Time. She is a Gemini sun, Leo moon, Aries rising. She served in Vietnam without firing a single shot, and has maintained a lifelong interest in cars, DIY projects, and novelty commodities. She identifies as an “androgynous dual entity” and, at present, has no exclusive preference for pronouns. She doesn’t completely adhere to the contemporary convention of avoiding a transgender person’s deadname: her early artworks remain attributed to “Philip Garner.” She does, however, object to the use of he/him pronouns when referring to work and events following her forays into gender hacking. 

Philip Garner grew up in the shadow of a world at war, in a Chicago suburb, to two parents: a masculine advertising executive father, and a frustrated stay-at-home mother. Garner, a talented draftsperson, studied art and industrial design in a piecemeal fashion (enrolling in and dropping out of both the ArtCenter College of Design in California and the Cleveland Institute of Art) before she was drafted into the United States Army in 1966, where she served as a combat artist in Vietnam. This post kept her away from the fighting but not from Agent Orange. (Garner is now living with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, ostensibly attributable to the exposure.) In later autobiographical writings, Garner is characteristically blasé about her time overseas, but does note that her political views going into the service were the products of her relatively conservative upbringing. Employment as a combat artist meant that Garner not only witnessed the atrocities of war but was tasked with documenting them for military posterity. The traumas of deployment surely contributed to Garner’s subsequent political about-face. 

Her time in Vietnam also directly contributed to her self-constitution as an artist—she bought a camera in the army commissary, and started taking personal photographs featuring many of the motifs she would revisit through her career, like cars, humorously composed street photography, and gender-defying self-portraiture. It seems reasonable to speculate that the notoriously circumscribed, hyper-masculine military culture influenced Garner’s commitment to individual expression and subversive play with gendered iconography. 

Garner returned from Vietnam with her instinctual knack for satire in full bloom. After her discharge, she enrolled in automotive design at ArtCenter in Los Angeles, only to be expelled in her second year. The grounds for expulsion? Her 1969 sculpture, Kar-Mann: Volkswagen Karmann Ghia in the front, human hindquarters in the back, a chimera which she presented with one haunch expressively lifted in the air, assuming the posture of a urinating dog. Garner had parachuted from the horrors of war into the prissiness of the academy. She was ready to move on to the highways, sex, and palm trees of Los Angeles at large.

I caught Act Like You Know Me, Garner’s traveling solo exhibition, in its closing week at White Columns this past December. White Columns is an elusive destination—by this I mean I always have a hard time finding it. Fortunately, just as I was beginning to suspect I’d done something weird with Google Maps again, the letters HE 2 SHE materialized on a massive photograph of a California license plate suspended in a storefront window. I’d reached my destination! 

Garner continually returned to photography after her time in the army, and images are often the only remaining record of her three-dimensional artworks. (The artist has habitually given away, destroyed, lost, or abandoned many larger-scale works over the course of her career.) A 60 x 90 inch print depicting an elderly gentleman on an asphalt street looking with bemusement at Kar-Mann anchored the entry-way installation of photographs at While Columns. The second, larger, gallery devoted to the show featured a 1997 self-portrait photograph of Garner in her military uniform, equally monumental in scale. 

The camera also proved a handy medium for Garner’s intermittent but distinctive editorial and advertising work in publications like Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vogue, Playboy, and Car & Driver from the 1970s onward. Alongside her commercial work, Garner began experimenting with customized iterations of mass-produced commodities. Choice pieces from her early 1980s foray into office-wear were installed on hangers on a central free-standing wall in the main gallery. Cut Out Blazer, circa 1980/81, included spacious holes guaranteeing full visibility for one’s breasts; one could enjoy Half Suit (shorts and a midriff-bearing blazer-suit-tie ensemble) in action on a nearby TV showing footage of Garner’s 1982 appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. 

The occasion for the Carson show cameo: the original prototypes from Philip Garner’s Better Living Catalog: 62 Absolute Necessities for Contemporary Survival (1982), the use of which the artist demonstrated to Carson with deadpan sincerity. Observe: the Palmbrella and the Blaster Bra in real time, saving time and labor, and looking great doing it. Palmbrella looks like its title (real palm leaves affixed to an umbrella skeleton) and provides, Garner explains, “instant shade … not artificial … I don’t go for the simulated thing.” Blaster Bra is comprised of a belted tape deck and two cylindrical speakers, which are worn over the breasts (“mounted equidistant from the ears for perfect fidelity, it’s perfect stereo”). Garner recommends wearing this under the clothes “for a discrete human Musak.” 

Garner’s follow-up 1984 publication, Utopia or Bust!: Products for the Perfect World, marked a turn in the artist’s attention from the quotidian to the futuristic. Behold as Garner works to protect intellectual property with the can-do attitude of a vigilante and the flair of a midnight cowboy: “Head Holsters: cerebral security system. Just a ‘dummy’ but reminds plagiarists, parasites, rip-off artists and dead-beats to do their own thinking for a change. As a bonus, the product also protects against theft of garments and precious stones / metals worn about the head.” Garner came of age in post-war America alongside the nascent advertising industry. As the child of an adman, is it any wonder that she incorporated the novelty commodity (and accompanying advertising) within her kaleidoscopic practice?

Still, Garner’s greatest artwork is undeniably herself. 

We’re fortunate to have a selection of Garner’s autobiographical writings collected in the Act Like You Know Me and $ell Your $elf catalogs. In these texts, many of which were written in the 1990s, Garner concocts an origin myth of her own devising. She also writes candidly about her transition. 

In “September 1996,” she writes, “my fascination with sex-change started not in childhood but as I approached middle age and grew more out of my obsessive interest in consumer technology and erotic sensationalism than any sense of having been cheated by nature.” In “Autobiography Part II,” she describes her decision to start hormone therapy: “I have no memory of any inward struggle over whether or not to take female hormones. It was as if any ambiguity had been worked out on a subconscious level and by the time it came to the surface, all was clear. It was just a matter of procedure—how does one go about such a thing?” 

Garner tried to acquire estrogen shots through “legitimate” medical channels, only to be repeatedly denied. Eventually, Garner paid a sex worker for her time to ask questions about transition; the sex worker wound up sharing her source for black market hormones, a kindness Garner karmically reprised by acting as a mentor to people undergoing transition in San Francisco in the 1990s. 

With a source for injectable estrogen secured, Garner started hacking her gender. When she decided that she wanted an orchidectomy, she found a doctor in Tijuana who would collaborate with her on the procedure. Garner recounted to McKenzie Wark in $ell Your $elf: “I went down to Mexico. It was a nice older surgeon, in a back-street. Nice clean little clinic. Half an hour later he handed me my testicles in two of the fingers of a surgical glove. I buried them in the backyard when I got home.” This morsel of personal history is both a description of the finale of a collaborative performance and an illustration of the artist’s maverick, equally on display in the Carson show as in her own backyard.

In recent years, Garner had a wooden leg tattooed on (meaning, her lower left leg is now inked with wood grain), as well as a thong bikini, with the bottom slipped over for easy access. Monopoly money is tucked into the string. Her ongoing process of auto-experimentation, performed upon an inevitably aging body, is cheekily documented in erotic self-portraiture, typewritten texts, and newspaper personal ads.

Gender hacking, for Garner, entails much more than hormone therapy, surgeries, and avant-garde tattoos. She infiltrates systems—from post-Fordist commodity production to the human body—by studying them, taking them apart to see how they work, identifying aporia and points of inconsistency, and reconfiguring them according to her own specifications. 

One could also read gender hacking as Garner’s primary mode of production—if life is art, and making art is one’s lifestyle and also the means by which one occasionally makes money, one needs a reliable methodology for getting that work done.  To make the kinds of artwork that Garner wanted to make, to be the person she knew herself to be, it was necessary to change her gender. Moreover, the perpetual motion of modification (hacking) is the artwork. Garner has repeatedly said that she makes commodities. And what more constant commodity is there than one’s own body, ever-changing and ever-available? 

Pippa Garner is a walking Gesamtkunstwerk. Her body-as-work body of work encompasses the techniques of the hacker, the inventor, and the provocateur—but can’t be limited to any one paradigm. Her practice, as McKenzie Wark puts it, is a worldview. 

Garner’s closest art historical affinity is with conceptual art, as Fiona Duncan points out in her essay “All I Want is to Make Something New.” Indeed, an aesthetic genealogy for Garner must begin with the proto-conceptualist himself, Dada’s daddy, Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp’s Readymades, mass-produced commodities repurposed as art objects, prefigure Garner’s prototype artworks for better living (none of which, as far as I can tell, were actually mass-produced, purchased, or used by anyone other than Garner). Duchamp’s photographic exploration of his feminine alter ego, Rrose Sélavy, shares with Garner an approach to gender fluidity that is, by turns, erudite, lewd, witty, and slightly acerbic, often tinkering, always puckish.

The term “concept art” was coined by artist and philosopher Harry Flynt in 1961. Flynt was associated with the performance-oriented Fluxus group coordinated by George Macunias. The New York—based movement levied a salient critique of consumer culture through anti-objects, utopianism, and absurdist humor—a throughline legible in Garner’s work a generation later.

On the West Coast, another brand of conceptualism emerged in the 1960s thanks to Beat-affiliated artists like Wally Hedrick, whose wacky machismo is an interesting counterpoint to  Garner’s own transgressions in car and military culture. As a part of the thriving West Coast scene in the 1970s and 1980s, Garner became close with her contemporaries Ed and Paul Ruscha, Paul McCarthy, and Chris Burden. The latter shared with Garner a taste for stunts and shock value, famously using his own body as medium and receptacle for a gunshot in Shoot, during the height of the Vietnam war in 1971. During this period, Garner frequently collaborated with her then-partner, the painter Nancy Reese, as well as the experimental architectural collaborative Ant Farm.

Garner’s later experiments in gender hacking might be paralleled with the Pandrogyny project of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and Lady Jaye, romantic and artistic partners who met in a BDSM dungeon in nineties New York and spent the rest of their lives pursuing surgical and hormone modifications to resemble one another as closely as possible; the “carnal art” of ORLAN; the raucous sex-positive feminism of Annie Sprinkle; and the post-surgical fixation on the constructed doll’s body of Greer Lankton. Recently Garner has become close with the performance artist Hayden Dunham, sharing “the struggle of being inside bodies.” Further connections will surely abound as Garner’s work reaches new audiences.

Nonetheless, Garner remarked in 2018 that she considers herself an “industry outsider.” This characterization captures the self-consciously marginal location that Garner’s persona and artwork inhabit. 

I would be remiss to write about Pippa Garner and not remark briefly on cars. As her old friend Ed Ruscha reflected in a visual contribution to the $ell Your $elf catalog, “Garner made a life out of attacking the entire subject of the automobile from every possible angle and leaves no flat tires for us to fix. The result of all this passion is a completely original point of view of that thing on four wheels.”  

I was sorry to have missed the appearance of Garner’s latest work, Haulin’ Ass!, 2023, when it drove backwards into Times Square last October. A revamp of her iconic 1974 work Backwards Car, Haulin’ Ass! is a red Ford Ranger whose body was removed from its chassis, rotated 180 degrees, and replaced. Garner had giant, droopy, flesh-colored hitch balls fabricated and affixed. This object is up to code—it just looks like it is driving backwards. The same motion could be attributed to Garner herself, an ever-young octogenarian artist who seems to be driving backwards into the future.

Pippa Garner claims that her demise has been pre-programmed into her circuits—she will “go out of existence after 47 years of service, in the year 2039 AD.” The human race will live on. Such is the future as it’s been foretold by Misc. Philippa Venus Garner, transhumanist oracle of Long Beach, California.