Upon entering Pippa Garner’s show, “Immaculate Misconceptions,” at JOAN in Los Angeles, visitors are greeted by HOW TO COME UP WITH AN IDEA and HOW TO GET RID OF YOUR IDEA, a pair of vinyl wall text pieces whose contents are as wryly pedantic as their titles suggest. “As ironic as it seems, keeping your brainchild may be more trouble than it’s worth,” proclaims the first lines of the latter work. Garner would certainly know about such things: As this exhibition attests, the inventor and performance artist has for decades been a fount of novel ideas—and equally creative ways of unloading her wacky brainchildren.
The majority of her work consists of zany inventions, or blueprints thereof, satirizing the notion that simply purchasing an item or enacting some prescribed procedure can drastically ameliorate one’s life. Several of her conceptions dating from the 1970s and ’80s were fabricated for the first time to be displayed in this show. Though dated in their technology and appearance, Garner’s ingenious yet dysfunctional devices seem as relevant as ever in their social commentaries, frequently touching on larger issues such as anomie, voyeurism, and lack of interpersonal communication. For instance, the double-stacked chairs in Untitled (Bunk Easy Chairs) (1975-2021) include amenities desirable for watching television or reading; but the configuration literally situates one person above the other, rendering face-to-face conversation impossible.
Many of the gadgets become futile stand-ins for people, such as the kinetic Sleeping Bed (2021), whose mattress moves in simulation of a human’s somniferous breathing. Suffused with undercurrents of contemporary technofuturism, such pieces tap the sense of wistfulness inherent to placing one’s hopes and dreams in commercial gizmos and technological advances.
Inventors Office (2021) is a small walk-in structure designed after several of Garner’s drawings from 1982-85. Its walls and desk are covered in sketches, drawings, and prototypal descriptions of her beguiling products, which often include promotional spiels enhancing their parodic import. The humor in these works has aged well, for the popularity of the infomercials and catalogs that apparently inspired the artist during the ’70s and ’80s has only given way to today’s proliferation of specious products and dubious marketing claims online. The methods of distributing such salesmanship may have changed; but the messages are the same, the tactics as aggressive, the results more lucrative.
Garner’s hype for her inventions further reads as a subtle satire of the braggadocio that often surrounds contemporary art—an interpretation bolstered by the fact that her descriptions frequently feature aesthetic appeal as a selling point. For example, a typed two-page description for “THE OBSERVATION BOOTH,” an enclosure for spying on one’s neighbors, boasts, “Pleasant furniture-like styling blends with any decor and would be a compliment to the home even if the BOOTH was seldom used.”
Garner began her career in the 1970s as Philip before beginning her gender transition to Pippa in the late 1980s. Despite the masculine salesman-inventor persona embodied by the artist at that time, a 1982 appearance on the Tonight Show reveals an interest in gender issues presaging her eventual transformation. A consummate showman, Philip Garner strutted onstage wearing an eccentrically cropped suit baring his midriff. When asked about this unusual getup, he stated matter-of-factly, “It was my theory that the abbreviated fashions of womenswear… should be adapted to the businessman,” and went on to expound an argument against the boring nature of traditional menswear.
Clips from that television appearance are featured in a new documentary included in this show, “Pippa: Queen of the Future.” The 32-minute film presents a sweeping overview of her career and recent reentry into the mainstream art world, intimating that friends and associates forsook the then-popular performance artist as she began her change.
Pulling back the curtain of her public persona even further, several vitrines toward the back wall of the gallery contain materials from her personal archive, offering fascinating insights into her complex motivations for transforming herself. “My motive was not gender confusion but rather to put a new spin on what had become a dull and predictable life… I got more than I bargained for… Angst and frustration gave way to a sense of well-being,” she wrote in 1995. Notes and letters provide frank glimpses into her thoughts and feelings as she underwent the transition, first taking a series of estrogen injections over the course of several years, and later undergoing gender reassignment surgery in 1993. The artist has described her transition as part of her art; and several notes contain allusions to this project’s relationship to themes in her larger oeuvre—for example, one scrawled snippet reads, “Consumerism: Designer Genitals”. In a manner redolent of the cynic/idealist dichotomies running through the rest of her work, she expresses a sense of ambivalence at the many difficulties she faced —“I have become familiar with the side-long glance. I am an alien”—tempered with optimism: “You can’t go back. The finality is satisfying.”
The archival materials also contain a tantalizing smattering of references to Garner’s other activities. Among other things, she wrote a monthly editorial for Car and Driver magazine for over 25 years; published several books; and was featured in magazines such as Rolling Stone during the height of her popularity as Philip Garner.
Ultimately, this exhibition represents such a small and varied slice of Garner’s output that one is left with the impression that a larger retrospective, or even an in-depth catalogue tracing the trajectory of her career, would be necessary in order to fully appreciate the intricacies of her life and work. As such, the show makes a compelling case for a more comprehensive reevaluation of this remarkable artist.
Pippa Garner, “Immaculate Misconceptions” at JOAN Los Angeles through Dec. 18, 2021, https://joanlosangeles.org/