Some 50 years ago, Pippa Garner drove a car backwards across the Golden Gate Bridge. Well, sort of: the body of the 1959 Chevy she was in had been rotated 180 degrees, so it only looked like it was rolling down the San Franciscan streets the wrong way. It was her artful way of lampooning the car culture that consumed America through the 1960s, but more so, she just got a kick out of it.
“It was amazing because anybody that was on the sidewalk would see this thing and think there was something wrong with their vision,” she told Artnet News. “It was just a crazy wave of reactions.”
As part of the piece, Garner intended for the Backwards Car to make just the one-time appearance, that it might be “a ghost,” as in “something that people thought they saw and lived their lives wondering if that really existed.” She junked the car, though not the idea.
On June 24, when Garner’s latest solo institutional show opens at Art Omi in Ghent, New York, the artist’s Backwards Car will be resurrected, taking the form of a 2003 Ford Ranger pickup truck with a similarly flipped exterior. Titled Haulin’ Ass! (2023), the work comes with truck nuts attached, of course.
“It’s back,” said Garner. “Maybe it’s a good time for it to reappear, when things are changing again with human mobility. It’s an interesting time for a statement about the absurdity of a vehicle.”
One could also argue that there’s never not a good time for a statement from Garner, who, over the course of a five-decade practice, has satirized, subverted, and otherwise sent up the ever-present scourge of consumerism. The appropriately titled “$ELL YOUR $ELF” at Art Omi features more than 100 of her works, ranging from drawings and sculptures to videos and garments, all bearing marks of the absurdist and conceptual relish with which Garner has attacked her subject.
There’s her cheeky Kar-Mann (1969), a sculpture melding a car and a human body; her self-published mail order catalogues from the 1980s hawking fictional and ludicrous inventions (high heels with roller skates, anyone?); and her recent t-shirt designs, featuring perversions of cliched phrases. Running throughout is Garner’s obsession with mass produced goods and her accompanying desire to upend their existence.
“I’ve just had it in my nature to play and juxtapose—I might consider myself a ‘juxtaposer,’” said the California-based artist. “You know, lift things up and see what happens.”
Garner was born in Illinois in 1942, and in a few years, with the rise of postwar manufacturing capacity, so was the American consumer. She grew up avidly drawing, though her eye was also drawn to the wave of newfangled appliances that were hitting the market. Eggbeaters, electric refrigerators, waffle irons, and the like were emerging and just as quickly becoming obsolete as newer versions replaced them. Watching these outmoded consumer products wind up at yard sales and thrift stores, Garner said, “I started to almost feel sorry for some of these things.”
“Somebody spent a lot of time to make this thing just the way you wanted it. And now it’s considered to be junk,” she added. “I thought, well, maybe I can bring them back to life somehow.”
It was a seed that followed Garner as she entered the ArtCenter College of Design’s transportation design program in 1969—from which she would be booted out for submitting a proposal of a car that morphed into a human body.
Undaunted, she would go on to realize—and make her name on—the Backwards Car in 1973, selecting a Chevy for its highly directional form. Notably, too, the final piece was sent not into a gallery, but on the road and into the pages of Esquire magazine, bearing out Garner’s understanding of the reach of mass media.
“You could do something in a magazine and it would be seen by thousands of people as opposed to a handful in a gallery. The art versus commercial thing was very much a division during that time. If you started doing stuff for magazines, you were considered to not be up to the standards of gallery art, though you would shine,” she said.
Mass media would serve as Garner’s platform for years to come. She gatecrashed classified ads, public access television, and mail order catalogs with conceptual pieces and performances that challenged the presentation of art—and ultimately, self.
In the 1980s, just as she hacked mass-produced goods, Garner began a project of hacking her own gender and body. Born biologically male as Philip Garner, she commenced a regimen of hormones and eventually surgery to transition to a female gender. She was motivated less by any form of dysphoria, but a desire to “fuck around” with her body because: “I wouldn’t have wanted to leave it the way it was.”
“What am I but an appliance?” she added. “I didn’t pick who I am or what I look like—those things were assigned to me. It’s not much different than if I went into a thrift shop and bought somebody’s old vacuum cleaner and decided to make a record player out of it. So why can’t I play with my body? What’s stopping me?”
Today, at 81, Garner’s body has weathered ravages beyond her control. She’s been diagnosed with leukemia and glaucoma—the former, she said, caused by exposure to Agent Orange when she was drafted into military service during the Vietnam War. When we spoke, she was just recovering from a bout of pneumonia that had landed her in the hospital for a month.
Not that any of it has dampened her creative drive. She expressed frustration at not being able to get more involved with “$ELL YOUR $ELF,” crediting curator Sara O’Keeffe for doing “a great job” going through her archive. More so, Garner is looking forward to getting past her health troubles so she can “get back at being productive for a little while.”
But as Garner put it, productivity for her remains not so much about making art than entertaining herself. Or maybe, they’re the same thing.
“I never thought of these things as having any value, but then people started telling me that they were art,” she said. “I wasn’t really thinking about myself as an artist at all. I was just doing stuff that amused me.”
“Pippa Garner: $ELL YOUR $ELF” is on view at Art Omi, 1405 County Route 22, Ghent, New York, from June 24 through October 29.