Los Angeles

View of “Pippa Garner,” 2021. From left: Chevrolounge, 1975; Untitled, 1995; Lampoon, 1982/2021. Photo: Josh Schaedel.

View of “Pippa Garner,” 2021. From left: Chevrolounge, 1975; Untitled, 1995; Lampoon, 1982/2021. Photo: Josh Schaedel.

Pippa Garner

During lockdown 2020, an online platform called Nowhere Comedy popped up. Its logo is an amalgam of major global city landmarks—Seattle’s Space Needle, Paris’s Arc de Triomphe, London’s Big Ben—all squished together into a single imaginary landscape. The impresa is supposed to be an inducement to buy tickets to ostensibly fun comedy events hosted on Zoom. It reminded me of the theme for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, with pavilions from eighty countries crammed together in Queens, celebrating “man’s achievements on a shrinking globe in an expanding universe.” Yet I can’t imagine a context in which a shrinking globe in an expanding universe would be an incitement to attend anything. It sounds like a vacuum of energy that might tear me apart, on a cellular level. But I imagine Pippa Garner takes that as an invitation.

The artist’s show here, “Immaculate Misconceptions,” was an attempt at a retrospective for five decades of objects, inventions, and ideas, packed together in the context of the gallery—even though Garner sees herself as more of a vessel where ideas sometimes deign to land than as an artist. The objects are delightful, absurd: a bed whose coverlet rises and falls on its own (Sleeping Bed, 2021), a stack of upholstered reading chairs (Untitled [Bunk Easy Chairs], 1975–2021). The sculptures take the deranged optimism of the World’s Fair to absurd extremes, making consumer prototypes into secular totems. The first thing one noticed upon entering the show was a dais stacked with freshly printed zines: Copies of Garner’s 1985 book Beauty 2000, reprinted here as a stack of A4 papers stapled together, slipped into plastic sleeves, and filled with her signature graphite cartoons of devices for “personal image management,” including a Pez-like dispenser for acrylic nails and a motorcycle helmet–cum–portable hair dryer. One also saw a vitrine of essays, photographs, and documents related to Garner’s transition around that time, topped by Genderometer, 1985–2021, a little gray box with a dial that goes from MALE to FEMALE and looks like a prop from the original Star Trek.

Many of the items here were specially fabricated from Garner’s sketches and notebooks for this show. Her drawings are as open as Sol LeWitt’s, which, in their “pure” form, exist as instructions for artworks to be executed by whoever wants to. I liked imagining a curator flipping through the artist’s notebooks, picking and choosing what she would best like to have made and installed in her gallery space—curation as mail-order catalogue shopping. This process has both the dryness of Conceptualism and the drama of consumer desire. Garner’s work is really about ideas, their cheapness, mobility, and feasibility—where assembly-line notions of progress start to take on the drag of desire and fantasy. The Mad Men–esque 1960s as parodied by the artist in the 1970s and ’80s were still marked by a belief in consumerism and human will as the twin engines that would drive us to utopia. Of course, Garner knows we’ll never really get there, so might as well cut up the car and turn it into a couch on which to rest, as she did with Chevrolounge, 1975—the tail end of a modified 1950s Chevrolet Bel Air. The trunk is upholstered with gaudy brown-and-cream floral fabrics, while the bumper is finished off with tassel fringe. The work is a perfect example of how the beauty of her designs as metaphors become tacky and absurd as realities.

Of her transition during the 1980s, Garner said, “I’m going to hack the cornerstone of identity. Which means I’ll probably never find a comfort zone in my life. I’ll grow old and still never feel quite at home anywhere or like I never quite fit the culture. And that seemed like a really good idea. It would keep me productive. And it worked perfectly.” The artist published a book of inventions titled Utopia or Bust in 1984, the year I was born (you could peruse a copy of this and several other texts by Garner at Joan’s front desk). Paging through it, I was tickled by the cheekiness of that (false) titular binary. For her, productivity is more sensuous than mere production.