Born in 1942 in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, the U.S.-American artist and author formerly known as Philip Garner pushes back against systems of consumerism, marketing and waste and has created a dense body of work including drawing, performance, sculpture, video and installation over her five decade-spanning career. Her uncompromising approach to life and practice has allowed her to interact with the worlds of illustration, editorial, television and art without ever quite becoming beholden to them.
One of Garner’s most significant works, the Backwards Car, 1974, was facilitated by Esquire, which agreed to pay for a used Chevrolet, the body of which was removed from its chassis by Garner – who did all of the mechanical work herself – then flipped around and refastened, so the car appeared to be driving backwards when it was moving forwards and vice-versa. The most iconic photographs of the project show the accident-chancing automobile moving with traffic over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
Stunts like the Backwards Car drew the attention of artists and the art world. Garner’s circle during the 1970s and early 1980s grew to include West Coast artists such as Ed Ruscha, Chris Burden, and the radical art and design collective Ant Farm, whom Garner would collaborate with. Another collaborator, the painter Nancy Reese, was a major influence. Trained in a fine art tradition, Reese – at once Garner’s creative and romantic partner – introduced her to contemporary art institutions and communities, as well as to the idea that Garner might identify as an artist herself.
Garner had started gender hacking in 1984 by privately dosing on black market oestrogen. She later described the decision as an ‘aha’ moment of inspiration: “In my earlier work,” she explains, “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.’” Gender, as Garner saw it, was the cornerstone of consumer identity, while the body was a technology, not so different from a car; why not reverse her own anatomy, as she had with that 1959 Chevy?
While prolifically productive at a local and personal level, Garner’s professional art career was practically non-existent from 1986 to 2014. She only exhibited once, in 1997, as part of Hello Again!, a recycled art show at the Oakland Museum. Gender discrimination accounts, in part, for this temporary exile. Since Garner was never one to pursue institutional opportunities herself, it was up to curators and fellow artists to recognize Garner as belonging to the museum and gallery system. A confluence of cultural updates set the stage for Garner’s recent rediscovery, not only the dawning of a new, expansive queer and feminist consciousness, the Internet and social media also further flattened the distinctions between mediums and fields, resulting in a generation unperturbed by Garner’s eclectic transdisciplinary manifestations.