by Renny Pritikin
Immaculate Misconceptions is a retrospective-scale exhibition of the work of Pippa Garner, formerly known as Phil Garner, a humorist and conceptual artist obsessed with objects of consumer exchange. The show includes sculptures, many drawings, and documentation of Phil’s decision to surgically transition to Pippa 40 years ago.
Garner has one of those rare visual imaginations that portray the world not as it is, but how it might be rejiggered to be funnier and truer. A satirist to the core, Garner cannot look at society without seeing its pretensions and delusions. She also has the wit to reveal those fallacies by turning the knobs, like those in the amps in Spinal Tap, up to eleven. The work resides in that hyper-American zone where humor, commerce and curiosity overlap; it was first defined by Rube Goldberg early in the last century, refined by Ripley’s Believe It or Notin the 1930s, and updated in the 1950s by magazines and comic books that carried ads for cheap mail-order toys and unlikely inventions. I take it that the show’s title refers both to such ill-conceived products and Garner’s self-reinvention as a trans woman.
Most narratives about trans life describe difficult childhoods, trying to reconcile one’s inner reality with familial and social expectations. Garner’s, for the most part, does not. Instead, she approaches her transition as a leap in scale and courage, exemplified by drawings in which everyday objects undergo drastic modifications. In this light, Garner’s transition was a body art experiment akin to a conceptual practice. This arguably places her work within shouting distance of the body modifications performed by the French artist Orlan, who dedicated herself to a lifelong series of cosmetic surgeries. Pippa maintains she was tired of the predictable, heterosexual life and future laid out before Phil and wanted to spice things up. Such a strategy is perhaps reflected best by the most iconic, precise and affecting work in the show: Genderometer (1985-2021), a rectangular gray box with a dial that spins 180 degrees, from masculine on the left to feminine on the right. You can set it anywhere on the continuum where you feel comfortable. (This piece also reminds me of the English sculptor, David Miles, who fabricated cardboard machines that, at the flick of a paper dial, could transport him one minute into the past, or 50 feet away, to avoid muggers).
Garner extends the drawing innovations of Goldberg and Ripley, who elevated functional illustration to tell a one-image story simply and elegantly. Her work has an art world awareness of how certain nuances can tease out a joke, making it more relatable through specificity and exaggeration. The exhibition includes an Inventor’s Office, a room whose walls are covered with drawings. Themes range from encounters with aliens (products to sell to them), silly men’s clothing modifications (a birdhouse top hat), and hitchhiking strategies (a suction cup outfit for jumping on the back of a passing car). A drawing titled CIG Alert includes an ashtray belt buckle; a cigarette disguised as a pencil; a cigarette with a self-igniting match tip; a bottle of “tobaccohol” enabling users to “smink and droke” at the same time; a chain-smoker tiara (resembling the statue of liberty) with 20 holes for an entire pack of cigarettes; and a “smokez’all,” a wooden device that accommodates a pipe bowl, a cigar and a cigarette.
In a video, a friend of Garner’s relates that after Phil appeared on the Johnny Carson show—to Carson’s somewhat awkward amusement—where he demonstrated his “shower in a can,” among other things, his friends assumed his career would take off as a TV personality. This didn’t happen, as Garner soon took his life in a very different direction, divorcing his wife and art partner, and beginning to conceive of Pippa. The exhibition includes quite a few of Garner’s sculptures, many of which originated as drawings. Highlights include Bunk Easy Chairs (1975-2021), a matched 1950s-style pair of stuffed chairs with ladder and reading lamps, and Electrolux Having a Smoke (1985-2021), a vacuum cleaner with stogie stuck in the exhaust pipe. This is not highbrow humor, but rather an almost pre-Seinfeld fascination with quotidian objects. There’s also plenty of bawdy humor with lots of phalluses and orifices.
A glass case of mostly typewritten pages documents Phil’s transition to Pippa. It is a generous and intriguing record of Garner’s careful research and step-by-step decision-making. For some visitors, this might be too much information, but for others it can be an educational and informative encounter. Now in her 80s, Garner lives in LA and continues to make art; she’s enjoying something of a resurgence now that the world has, to some extent, caught up with her hilarious and smart body of work, and passage through the looking glass.
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Pippa Garner: Immaculate Misconception @ Verge Center for the Arts through September 25, 2022.
About the author: Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his most recent book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020. He is the United States correspondent for Umbigo magazine in Lisbon, Portugal.