Artist Pippa Garner’s convoluted and mesmeric relationship with the automobile started shortly after her birth, as Phillip Garner, in 1942. The first cars she recalls all had very specific facial expressions. “The Oldsmobiles had a frown. The Buicks had a sort of leering grin — like they were stupid or something. I just hated Buicks,” she told me in a wide-ranging conversation. “Fords, which were my favorites, had more of a cheerful, happy, childish look.”
Seven or eight years old, and still enthralled by fantastical notions like the existence of Santa Claus, she began to anthropomorphize these cars. To feel that, like her, they had a heartbeat, emotions. When she saw them wrecked, their faces mangled, she cried.
Surrounded by these seething machines, she attempted to capture their essence with pencil and paper. Fords were too revered to draw, Buicks too reviled. But a group of middling orphans caught her attention. “Back then, there were a number of small car producers, off-brands, that I sort of felt sorry for, and a certain amount of humor toward,” she said. These included Kaiser, Fraser, Hudson and Studebaker. “They were like pets, sort of. So I would make these drawings of them doing silly things, making fun of them. That started me to see my sort of sense of the absurdity of the cars.”
This sensibility has pervaded her life, and art, ever since. Pippa has spent her entire artistic career skewering the car, and the consumerist culture that has developed around it. In fact, anything that perverts the stated mission of the automobile — independence, representation, aspiration, utility — Pippa has underscored in her fiendishly hilarious and irreverent body of artwork. Which, she says, includes her own body.
This career began when she was a student at Art Center College in Southern California, a premier program for automotive designers, in the late ‘50s. Having moved from Detroit, where her father worked in automotive advertising and the car was revered, she was struck by Angelenos’ individuated and offbeat treatment of their cars, much of it trickling down from hot-rod and custom-car culture.
She spotted a Cadillac that someone had hacksawed into a pickup. A front-yard Catholic altar made entirely of hubcaps. A snapped radio aerial replaced with an elaborate coat hanger sculpture, a broken taillight fixed with a scrap of red cloth, a crushed grille repaired with a luggage rack. She began riding her bike around the city, photographing this bizarre cult that both venerated and denigrated the automobile, but was entirely dependent upon it.
“That again triggered my sense of the absurd, and it’s probably why I feel so bound to this part of the world,” she said from her current home in Long Beach. “It sort of exists everywhere, but not like this. This was the world-center for it.”
This immersion in farcical vehicular theater had an impact on her career path. “I finally got kicked out of Art Center for being irreverent toward the subject matter,” she said, laughing. She studied at the Cleveland Institute and a few other design schools. In 1965, she was drafted into the U.S. Army and served 13 months in Vietnam.
In the aftermath of her military service, Garner became even more committed to documenting the automobile’s lunacy. In the early 1970s, she disassembled a 1959 Chevy, mounting the body backwards on the chassis and driving it from the back seat, peering through the rear window. She completed all the body and engineering work herself, eventually recruiting a group of friends to lift and spin the body back-to-front. It worked, and — with the addition of headlights and windshield wipers — was street legal. It terrorized people on highways and sidewalks whenever she drove it. Esquire magazine did a feature on the car.
Riffing on her childhood hatred of Buicks, she created a nautical-themed Buick boat car, Long Time No See, which is now in the collection of Audrain’s Automotive Museum in Rhode Island. “I built in the cockpit of a ‘67 Datsun into the back window area and made a flying bridge so you drove it from the top. Connected all the controls and everything and then made a nautical rail and all the nautical trimming for it,” she explained.
She constructed ridiculous homewares from car parts. The rear end of a 1954 Chevy became a sofa. A Buick dashboard was the foundation for a desk — the radio worked, and the windshield wiper switch controlled a broom that swept the work surface clean. A gape-mouthed 1960 Chrysler front fascia was transformed into a working fireplace with a brick chimney. For a 1972 LA Times magazine cover about recycling, she built the entrance to a house out of car parts.
Then living in San Francisco, she became friendly with Chip Lord — a founding member of the art collective Ant Farm, famed for its automotive installation Cadillac Ranch, and early automotive-themed dystopian video art project Media Burn — and they began collaborating. Lord had located a cache of old General Motors dealer training films, and they decided to recreate one of them — How to Close a Deal with a Customer — verbatim, as a live performance, underscoring the crass unctuousness of car sales.
“We acted it out with Chip as the customer and me as the salesman,” Garner said. It was performed at the La Mamelle alternative exhibition space in San Francisco in 1978, and at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1981. Artforum did a review. (Garner and Lord both also participated in the glorious 1978 Artists’ Soapbox Derby, sponsored by the San Francisco MoMA.)
Garner wrote for Road & Track, photographed cars for Motor Trend, and later had a monthly illustrated column in Car and Driver magazine, creating fake inventions that skewered the automobile and its foundational, catalyzing role in our ingurgatory society. She extrapolated on this market absurdity in books, including Phillip Garner’s Better Living Catalog and Utopia… or Bust: Products for the Perfect World.
This fascination with automotive dysphoria eventually led Garner to question the bifurcated gender norms that pervade and underscore American consumerism. “I saw the feminine and masculine in cars and other products,” she explained, “and felt that energy back and forth between the two. And that was part of the floating question mark over my head, that finally led me to hack my own gender identity.”
She continued. “When I looked in the mirror, I’d think, I didn’t choose that. Being a six-foot-two genetic male, white, middle class — I had those things laid on me automatically. I didn’t make any of those decisions to do that. Here’s this thing that’s been given to me, it’s just kind of another tool, another resource, something that I can play with and modify, like the backwards car. Do something different and see what happens.”
Garner began her transition in the ‘80s, making her something of a transgender pioneer. Her playfulness around gendered notions, her perception and presentation of it as an extension of her art, can be seen as controversial. “It’s sort of a non-traditional attitude,” she said. “So I’m still in a sort of isolated, non-conformist sense. But I figured, maybe if I get into a real comfort zone, that’ll be the end of my ideas.”
Her vehicular preferences have similarly aligned with her outlier sensibility. A $40 DeSoto, a Ford hot rod with tack-on ersatz whitewalls, a fluorescent green AMC Gremlin named Lil’ Thug. “I never actually owned a car that cost more than three figures,” Garner said.
Because of serious health issues associated with her exposure to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam, Garner stopped driving cars in the ‘90s. She switched over to a four-wheeled, caged and roofed pedal-powered vehicle of her own design. “One of them has almost 40,000 miles on it. And it has a sign on the side of it that says The Car of the Future,” Garner said. “And that gets some interesting reactions—the occasional thumbs up, the occasional ‘fuck you.’ It really brings out people’s attitudes about their machines.”
Recently, Garner designed a wood-shrouded wheelchair to provide dignity for the aged as they cruise the streets of LA — and to protect youthful onlookers from staring into the face of their own futures.
Speaking of faces, Garner muses about the future of the automotive visage, and our ability to connect to it. “They’re trying to get rid of the face. Cars should have faces,” she said. “Maybe styling is over? Maybe an autonomous car won’t elicit any personal connection at all, and we won’t need to identify with it as an object.” She paused. “On the other hand, they style blenders and washing machines. Where can they go from now?”