pippa-garner-t-shirts-main

(Frontpage 101)

The T-Shirt Oeuvre of Pippa Garner Is a Future Classic

  • Words: Fiona Alison Duncan

  • Images: Courtesy of the artist and STARS, Los Angeles

In this FRONTPAGE story (from HIGHArt, a print magazine by Highsnobiety, available from retailers around the world and our online store), we delve into the illustrious archive of a future cult-hero of T-shirts, Pippa Garner.

I think I’ll write a book about Pippa Garner someday soon. I’ve been recording our phone calls for years in preparation. Pippa’s a dream subject. Her life is a treasure trove of misadventures and great works that parallel the rise and fall of the American Dream: automobiles, consumer innovation, and individual freedom spiraling into alienation, culture wars, more wars abroad, and ecological ruin.

Pippa’s art is conceptual, or best approached as such. Although, the work is highly engineered. There are road-ready cars, among other functional appliances, in her canon. Her practice is most exciting when viewed as a whole, through the circuitous assembly line of her life’s many moves. Born in 1942 in Chicagoland, Illinois, Pippa Garner is a member of the Silent Generation who refused the privileges offered by her white male genetics and middle class origin. Willfully staying at the margins, her transition (which started in the mid-’80s with black market hormones) is part of her outsider artist practice, an exploration of the body as a consumer technology.

There will be a stage in my research where I interview everyone I can who has known Pippa over the years, among them her ex-wife, the artist Nancy Reese; her new friend, the artist Hayden Dunham; and maybe Ed Ruscha, star of the LA art world, a scene Pippa has dipped in and out of since the ’60s. Los Angeles is Pippa’s closest thing to “home,” because it is (like her) de-centered and alienating. She’s “tethered,” as she puts it, to this place/non-place, always returning to it after stints in other places.

Pippa’s travel timing has been historical. She sought romance in Barcelona and stopped in on rock star London after serving as a combat artist in the Vietnam War (a conscript who never discharged her weapon). She spent a moment in art-market manic, early AIDS crisis New York City, where she liked to visit gay bathhouses, even though she identified then as straight male, about to become a lesbian. Two decades later, post-transition, after being priced out of dot com boom San Francisco, Pippa stayed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for longer than expected, and was tattooed with a trompe l’oeil string bikini stuffed with Monopoly money.

Pippa talks about a diner she frequented in Santa Fe, where, at one point, in her sixties and curious about being on the other side of the exchange of food, she asked to volunteer. What did the other waitstaff think of her? No one who has met Pippa Garner could forget her. She’s a six-foot-plus trans woman who body builds and wears a uniform of leggings and graphic T-shirts she’s made herself. She talks like a comedian rehearsing bits when she’s not candidly unloading about her real-life challenges or giving studio-visit-like monologues.

The fact that Pippa is not more famous, I think, is part of her conceptual practice. She trashes her past, often gives important work away, and is obsessed with forward momentum, making the next thing, only to do it again, and again, and again, just like the consumer capitalism she critiques. Those who care for her would prefer to see her thrive, prefer to have her whole catalog archived. She should have a major museum retrospective by now. “I let the management of my career be completely at random,” she explains. “What difference does history make?”

Pippa has always worked between fields of distinction, getting by on “low” commercial art and design gigs, while popping up in “high” institutional settings long before Kanye West proclaimed they were “exactly the same.” Was Pippa Garner a prophet of the flattening of all media? If so, she’s yet to benefit — not by American standards of success (fame and money). But what if we place value in another way? What if success is leading a long life of constant art making; of fresh thinking and adventure; of never, not even through the traumas of war, poverty, housing discrimination, and health crises, losing one's mind completely or perpetuating harm and injustice? Maybe Pippa Garner is, actually, among the most successful artists of the last century.

Pippa almost died this summer. In her words, she did, and was brought back to life. After a comatose week on life support, following a clusterfuck of health complications, including pneumonia, the baseline of which is chronic lymphocytic leukemia (from Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam), she’s back in her apartment, trying to regain the muscle mass and mobility she lost while lying in a hospital bed. She calls her new self “Pippa 2.0” and wonders how she’ll be different.

The following interview zooms in on Pippa’s T-shirts. It was conducted over the phone one day after I had visited her in person with my boyfriend, Matt Hilvers (he’s also an artist, and a thorough researcher, the one who first introduced me to the work of “esoteric enigma” Pippa Garner; I want to put that on the record). I got to riffle through a stockpile of Pippa’s T-shirts on our visit, pulling favorites to be photographed.

Her shirts are like notes, or a diary. Many are shorthands of ideas you’ll see in larger-scale sculptures and performances. Others are comedic confessions. For those unfamiliar with Pippa Garner’s work, the shirts provide a good introduction to her humor (never at another’s expense), her obsessions (gender, cars, cats), and her hand. Even when she was making functional automobiles and bicycles, using found materials, detritus remixed by hand into bonkers new inventions, these T-shirts are a soft expression of this same process.

FIONA ALISON DUNCAN: Hi Pippa, how are you?

PIPPA GARNER: Oh, I forget. I’ll tell you tomorrow.

DUNCAN: I’m going to ask some basic questions to start —

GARNER: Let me take a sip of my potent caffeinated beverage here. Just one second…

DUNCAN: Take your time.

GARNER: It should help. It’s a mix of protein, BCAAs [branched-chain amino acids] and caffeine. I keep a jar of it handy at all times. The minute I start to fade a little bit, it’s like going back to the gas station to put some more fuel in the tank. I started to think of myself as a machine that needs constant maintenance.

DUNCAN: Fuel up. So when did you start making T-shirts?

GARNER: I think it was in Santa Fe. Must have been about, oh, say 2010. I happened to notice at that point that the T-shirt has an interesting history. It was originally developed as underwear for military uniforms. Rather than the standard undershirt, they made a t-shaped shirt because it was more practical and warmer, or easier to clean or something. After the war [World War II], there was a military surplus of T-shirts. It became cool in the early ’50s to wear a T-shirt with a sort of a lightweight jacket open, zipped down about two inches, so you could see the shirt underneath. It was kind of a rebellious look. The actor James Dean popularized that style and another variation on the T-shirt. At that time, everybody smoked, and you could roll a pack of cigarettes up in the sleeve of a T-shirt. Have you seen that?

DUNCAN: Definitely.

GARNER: That was very common back then. Every guy that was under 30 years old, it seemed like, walked around with this pack of Luckys tucked into their sleeve.

DUNCAN: Did you?

GARNER: I never smoked. I never liked it. I was kind of ostracized almost by my friends because of it. Smoking was a thing that brought people together. Anyway, after that trend, the T-shirt started to become popular, but never with anything written on it. That would’ve been the most crass, crude, dumb thing to do. Nobody would ever have worn something that said “Nike, Just Do It,” or some damn thing. Meanwhile, the advertising industry was essentially born in the early ’50s. Advertising at that point had been almost quaint. It was nice little pictures of things and little phrases of description. I remember one of the tire companies had an advertisement of a child in a nightgown holding a candle. The caption was “Time to Retire.”

DUNCAN: Sounds like one of your shirts.

GARNER: Can you imagine trying to sell anything like that in 2021? It was very quaint, a hint at the product. With the evolution of consumerism in the early ’50s, all of a sudden they were making far more things than they could sell. So you had to have an assembly line for the promotion, as well as the actual production, of products. Advertising became crude. They would use anything they could to attract attention. Then we get to the ’60s. I guess somebody said, “Hey, people are walking around wearing these blank billboards. Why don’t we put our logo on there? Put a big caption.” Not only did companies get free advertising with slogan T-shirts, they actually ended up being paid by consumers who wanted to advertise on the company’s behalf. Now people pay for a “Just Do It” T-shirt. I found that interesting, absurd, and such a reversal from the original thing that happened during my lifetime.

DUNCAN: That’s an interesting way of looking at it.

GARNER: And nobody even looks at it. T-shirts have become a trash medium. Everybody walks around with something on their shirt, some sports team or product, some car, whatever. Nobody pays attention. It’s completely useless, like junk mail, the stuff that comes weekly from Spectrum, all these companies. Everybody glances and it goes immediately to the recycling bin without even being opened. That’s the way the T-shirt went. So I thought, “Well, that’s kind of great. What if I played with that as a format for art?” I was also inspired by a project that happened in the ’70s. One of the big billboard companies in LA decided to do an art project and commission artists to do billboards. One of the artists was my close friend at the time, Ed Ruscha. He did this billboard right on Hollywood Boulevard that was — I think it was — the back view of the Hollywood sign. There were a number of artists who did those billboards. They turned up along the freeway, places where you least expected to see a piece of art.

DUNCAN: Could you talk about the language play on your shirts?

GARNER: During the years I did artwork for Car and Driver, I became fascinated with captions, titling a page, and playing with the lettering. I got pretty good at it and very interested in graphics and language. It must have come to me one day: Here’s a white T-shirt. Let me get some lettering. I went up to — what’s that place? There’s a big chain store for hobbies —

DUNCAN: Hobby Lobby?

GARNER: Hobby Lobby, yeah, which is funny because it’s a religious company.

DUNCAN: I know, I was weirdly there earlier this week. Huge store, with all the religious books and decorative Christian slogan stuff near the registers.

GARNER: It surprised me when I saw that. I thought, “If they only knew what I was doing with their products.” They would’ve crucified me, so to speak. I found that Hobby Lobby had an incredible variety of typefaces and sizes and colors. It was amazing. The shirts are really fun. They’re something I can get an immediate reaction to, whereas other things that I make, it just sits there until it ends up in a show. With the shirts, I just put it on and go to the supermarket and get a quick response. I got a fan base at the market doing that. Somebody would constantly come up to me from the back and say, “Hey, Pippa, what’s your shirt say today?” That went on for several years in Sante Fe. When I moved here [to Long Beach], I continued it, but then I started thinking, “Well, gee, I’m really into using eBay, and eBay has, believe it or not, almost a million T-shirts at any given time. If you whittle it down to ‘pre-owned,’ which is a great euphemism by the way, it’s still several hundred thousand.” It’s like being able to get into everybody’s closet and poke around and find things. I started getting more and more into that, and that’s when the shirts became much more graphic with images as well as text.

DUNCAN: Do you happen to remember what the first shirt you ever made said?

GARNER: Oh, no. I couldn’t possibly. It just all runs together at this point. I must have done maybe 500 all together by now. Sometimes they end up in interesting situations. Like there’s this show… Do you know Zackary Drucker?

DUNCAN: Yes.

GARNER: She produced this video documentary called The Lady and the Dale on — was it on YouTube or something? It’s about this hoax, this transgender person who tried to create this hoax with a new three-wheeled vehicle and then got found out and got into trouble. I had a T-shirt that said “Born in the wrong body,” which is that phrase that comes up in the transgender community. I used a picture of a ’70s Buick, as if implying that I would rather have been a car. That shirt was worn by the lead character on the show.

DUNCAN: I’m looking it up now. The Lady and the Dale is an HBO miniseries from earlier this year. That’s big, Pippa. “In the 1970s, one entrepreneur took America for a ride…” Very cool, so fitting, since you were playing with automobiles in your work at that time in history as well.

GARNER: Right now, this is the first time I’ve been stopped from making the shirts, because of my health problems. And I’m thinking, “Does Pippa 2.0 want to get back into doing that or not?” I think I do. We have a pretty isolated existence. I had that even before all the trouble I’ve been in lately. It was always just a nice thing to get good or bad comments on the shirts. Some people would say, “That one’s really terrible.” Or they’d love it. I’d like to keep that going because it added some instant… What is it?

DUNCAN: Gratification?

GARNER: Gratification. Thank you, yeah. I definitely need IG.

DUNCAN: That’s funny, that’s what people call Instagram. I hadn’t fully put that together. IG. Instant Gratification.

GARNER: IG is definitely one of the components of my sanity, to have somebody come up and pat me on the head once in a while.

DUNCAN: There’s one shirt that’s in your archive that I love. It looks like an early one, and it says, “I’d be more beautiful, but I ran out of money.” Do you remember that one?

GARNER: I really don’t remember. Maybe I have an onset of dementia. Maybe I was born with dementia, and that’s been one of the assets of my career. Because the past doesn’t hold me back. It just evaporates.

DUNCAN: I love reading the shirts and trying to understand them in terms of your career and life. This one feels important: “Join, no 2 alike, working to rid the world of mass production.”

GARNER: Mass production is this furious way of stuffing the world full of things that people don’t know they need. Advertising needs to convince you that you do. I think that’s clumsy and it wastes a lot. It’s certainly not good for the environment, all the factories pouring out stuff. I noticed on the news today, it said China’s having trouble right now because there’s a coal shortage that’s caused all these factories to have to cut back, and they’re even threatening possibly having power outages in communities during the winter. It’s almost a panic situation, and it’s, “Oh, what are they making?” They’re making the things that aren’t necessary anyway. Mass production creates a superficial culture, because people are thinking in terms of something that catches their eye, that they don’t care about the next day. I think that automobiles epitomize all that. It’s an extremely complex thing. Cars take a huge, vast amount of energy to create, from virtually every conceivable resource. And what is it for? So that we can have urban sprawl. So that we can let our communities get completely sloppy. Urban sprawl has destroyed the centrality, the necessary focus of a community. In this little module, the car, you seal yourself up, lock the doors, and go out and swear at other people on the road because they’re cutting you off. All that stuff, little incidents like that, add up to a real decline in the culture, socially, in our ability to have enlightenment and vital communities.

DUNCAN: Speaking of cars, you mentioned earlier that you’ve started thinking of your body as a machine that needs maintenance and fuel. Now the supplements you’re taking are to compensate for health problems, but the way you’re framing it sounds like an extension of your body modifications and gender hacking.

GARNER: In my earlier work, I was always using objects that were consumer goods, things that came off assembly lines. I remember looking in the mirror one day — this was in the ’80s — and I thought, “Hey, I’m an object, too. I’m just another appliance.” I thought that was something I should include in my repertoire. If I’m going to work with cars and household components, what about an organic component? The human body. That’s when the idea of gender hacking came into my mind.

DUNCAN: It’s cool. It’s like you’re working on this stuff on many levels with your body. Under the skin, over the skin. There’s the hormones and supplements you take, and the exercise you do, then there’s the implants and tattoos, the extra silicone you got in your nipples recently. I’m reminded of a T-shirt I found different versions of at your place. The most recent one reads, “I’m 79, but my tits are only 32.”

GARNER: I’ve made about three or four. The next one would be nice because I’ll be 80 and my tits 33.

DUNCAN: Those are good numbers. I love those numbers.

GARNER: It’s funny. I could date all the artificial body parts I have. I was at one point thinking of having the dates tattooed over them.

DUNCAN: I like that.

GARNER: My cheek implants would be 1996. I could have a little “96” tattooed on each. Or even “9” on one and “6” on the other. My posterior implants were more recent. Maybe I’ll do it.

DUNCAN: I can see it already, Pippa.

Head here to get a copy of HIGHArt, a magazine by Highsnobiety.

What To Read Next