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December 15, 2003

Guest Posting -- Turbokitty

Dear Friedrich --

Turbokitty, who 2Blowhards visitors know as the writer of a variety of kick-ass contributions to our Comments section, is my favorite rambunctious art chick. The Wife and I enjoy downtown evenings out on doubledates with Turbokitty (real name: Michelle Vaughan) and her alpha blogger b.f. Felix Salmon, whose own website is here. Anyway, Michelle was rapping the other day about this and that, and she got me fascinated; she was talking about how she'd recently started seeing and perceiving things in new ways. I asked if she could get it down in writing, and she soon came back with this piece. I think it's loads of visual-people fun -- as well as, shhhh, sweet and touching. Enjoy. The images are thumbnails, so be sure to click on them.

TurboKitty Turns a Corner

It happened in my living room about a month ago. I was listening to† Ween, a group† I've liked for years and years because they were such hysterical and† quirky college musicians who smoked fierce amounts of pot. But on† their brand new CD, "Quebec", the music is ... so grown up. "Ohmigod,"† I thought. "What the hell happened?"† The music was still playful and twisted, but through the entire album† something resonated -- Gene and Dean Ween had loved and lost (*sigh*). It was serious stuff, although it wasn't as if they'd entirely given† up their psychedelic smartass style. But also in there was more ambiguous music. Whoa dude, were they getting deep on me?

So I listened to the CD over and over. I went through all the lyrics (yes, at age 32, there I was deconstructing potheads). I wanted to know what was going on, and I finally realized that they've moved into another dimension of communication, with irony worn like old shoes, not forgotten but with new places to go.

It occurs to me that perhaps we've moved into the post-post modern world. Sometimes I feel like I've fallen down a rabbit hole and landed in a world of dťjŗ vu. Even Ween's growing up -- like I say: Omigod.

Now, they're older than I am, around 35 or 38. And maybe one of them got a divorce, and maybe one of them kicked speed. And it can be depressing to come off speed. Still, I've grown up with Ween, so this change affected me, and I didn't expect that. It made me feel sad, like when I used to feel sad for Charlie Brown in the Peanuts strip when nothing went his way. What was going on?

I became an art chick back during the eighties. I was a kid living by the beach in California and I was bored out of my skull. I knew I was going to be an artist from when I was five. My grandfather was a cubist painter, and I loved to draw ever since I was a little kid, and I was lucky enough to have parents who promoted my interest in it; wealthier friends who were interested in art often had parents who wanted them to be lawyers.

"God is Dead" (1992): My punk-rock phase

I subscribed to the Village Voice when I was a teenager, and with that my parents were appalled. I fantasized about New York (at a time when the NYC hotties were Kenny Scharff, Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat and the like). I had no idea what I was doing really, and zero focus. In art classes, I'd escape to the beach and watch the waves for hours. But then I went to a junior college, Orange Coast College, to get ready for UCLA, and it was great. I pushed myself: life studies, very classical, drawing and oils, and no photography.

It was doing photography at UCLA that really changed me. It's where I learned to be a conceptual artist vs. just someone who imitates life. I couldn't simply photograph a tree or a car. My professors wouldn't let me. I came back from doing my first assignment at UCLA with photos of Volkswagens and other old cars -- I liked old cars. And I got yelled at. My photo professor, Mark McFadden, opened my eyes. He said, "This is shit. It doesn't say anything. What's your message? I'm not interested in work which is simply formal."

These weren't photography classes that were about burning and dodging. To have that kind of education, I would have gone to Pasadena Art & Design. My UCLA art profs weren't interested in anything technical; they couldn't have cared less if you blew something out in a print. They wanted you to start thinking about what you were looking at, and the context, and who's going to look at it. My instructors wanted to see art which was asking questions, not answering them.

Crits were really rough. "Boring" was the one thing you never wanted to be; you never wanted to bore the class. In fact, you'd go for shock value just so you wouldn't bore anyone. I did a lot of self-portraits, which was so, so art school. We had a joke that if girls took off their clothes they'd get an A. So I took off my clothes and did a thing about who has the power. There was a gun, and I had myself gagged and bound, with clothespins fastened all over my body. I was going for shocking. And my teacher liked it; I got the A.

10 years ago it seemed that every UCLA professor was an art star. I was lucky; I had conversations that blew me away. Mike Kelley was teaching at Cal Arts (the rival art school to UCLA), and he was like a total rock star. He's a quintessential California bad boy; he was the hot shit art cowboy.

Art by art-cowboy Mike Kelley

One thing you have to understand about California art is that you have got to be cool. Fonz cool. In California, the surfer-philosopher rules. Nothing is cooler than surfing and skating and punk rock. Remember the turtles in "Finding Nemo"? Remember Patrick Swayze in "Point Break"? Surfer-philosophers. In reality, many boy surfers are conservative and sexist, and dumber than sand. But if you're a great surfer? It's like being a rock star.

And Mike Kelley was skatepunk cool. And he had a huge explanation of what he was doing that was ... Whoa, smart! Smart? I'd spent so much time with boys frying their brains on weed that smart was delicious and refreshing. Get me away from these stupid boys, and hello people with brains. Hello Sonic Youth and hello Hollywood. Goodbye surf world. Bye ...

When Mike Kelley hit the art scene in the eighties, I was still in high school. By the time I was in art school, he was a demi-god. Paul McCarthy was one of my instructors at UCLA, and he used to work with Mike Kelley -- they did lot of video together. In class with McCarthy, we would sit there discussing camp, kitsch, game playing, appropriation, space -- your normal postmodern topics in a conceptual art program. We were being ironic; being ironic set you apart from the dumb people (although it didn't take much; I was surrounded by stupid). I played around with kitschy items in my work and had a really good laugh. Anything so-bad-it-was-good was my baby.

"Life on the Farm" (1996): Gotta love 'em

I also had an inborn feeling for kitsch, probably from having hung out with punk rock and rockabilly kids who were constantly making fun of how plastic California is. And much of it really is inane. "Edward Scissorhands"? That was exactly like my neighborhood. I've gotten loads of inspiration from Tim Burton.

I got out of art school about ten years ago, and I wanted to make something bigger. As I was out in the desert shooting trailer parks and big rigs (I LOVE trucks), my eye shifted to the horizon. Suddenly the landscape became thin and the sky became big. Nature. Whoa. Holy shit, where did this nature thing come from?

I stayed on the west coast for three or four more years. I stayed up really late, had no friends and worked at photography labs. I worked at the high-end commercial ones, where I met a lot of photographers and their assistants. And that was how I learned how to actually print, and how to understand the science of how photography works. UCLA gave me an understanding of questioning, exploring and looking at art in a contemporary aspect. But the technicques? The good artists came to the lab and had photographs printed and I'd get to know them and how to print that way. Through the back door, is the way I look at it. I worked at photo labs and would stay there until one or two a.m. and then get up in the morning and shoot in the morning and go back to work at 2 pm. I'd work till ten, and I'd print till 2:00 A.M.

I got my photographs in a couple of group shows, but not many. LA isn't about networking. No one's willing to help anyone out. It's competitive in a similar fashion to the movie industry and there wasn't much of a community of people my age. You were really on your own -- even professors weren't all that helpful once they figured out a student of theirs could possibly have a career. They were competitive too -- what assholes. It's just not the life philosophy I believe in, which is part of the reason I moved away. Some of the people I knew are still artists there, but I don't talk to anyone from UCLA any longer. I don't have a single friend from college.

After moving to New York and working for several commercial photographers and artists, I had all this inner conflict, about commercial art versus fine art. Originally I had come to check out the illustration circuit. But what ended up happening is that I couldn't do any work at all; I was discouraged by the industry and all the crap people in publishing. The city was too much -- too compact. I was used to wide-open spaces. Clarity. Nature.

So I had myself an intense period of clubs and downtown to find my escape. The pressure, the loudness, and the self-consciousness all got to me. I knew it would be impossible for me to become a full-time artist in NYC. I didn't have the capital to create the atmosphere I needed (time + space).

Finally I created space in my head. When I made art again, it was insects. At first I photographed them. Then it was drawing -- ink mostly. I started being able to make art again when my boyfriend, Felix, and I started going upstate and hanging out in the country with the insects. It's so crazy to look through a lens at these guys. You're seeing these millions of eyes inside a fly's eye, then with the double macro lens it's so beautiful. The things you can do technically! You can distort the back of a fly, or throw some of this teeny-tiny insect out of focus. It's intense. I can't think of† anything better than when you can get that precise and into the natural world.

Moth on pool net (2000): Eye to eye

It had taken me four years to figure out how to make art again. There was nothing to see or look at in the city. NYC has been shot a bazillion times already. I couldn't find any mystery. I tried playing the art game for a while -- openings, networking -- and didn't get much out of it. Really, it made me want to puke, though I'm glad I did it. I've got nothing to regret. It's very different here than L.A. It's exciting to see students from Cooper Union versus my old scene from UCLA. It's exciting to see them collaborate and create possible life-long bonds.

My advice to someone arriving afresh in the city would be: know what you want. Don't go flailing around undecided. Understand the kinds of galleries you want to spend time around. Stay focused and meet those people. Be direct. New York City does not like flakes.

I'm direct in the sense that I've stayed focused, doing drawings and photography instead of my other ambitions. But I'm not directed in an art-career sense. Most people need help unless you're a born genius or riding on a trust fund. You need a half a dozen people who'll give you creative feedback and people with influence in the art world to champion your work. I am happy to make art when I can and eventually find the right person to help me. It's hard, but it is possible.

But as far as content goes? Now I'm looking at everything a bit differently. For the first time in 15 years, I'm not looking at everything I make in a kitschy fashion. Small doses are cool. But contemporary art can mean so much more too. It can have real meaning, or so I hope. When I look at pieces of music or film or art these days, it seems to me that this is happening more generally. Years ago, I would have been way too cool and in my own little "alt" corner to embrace mainstream pop music, for instance. Now I'm listening to Justin Timberlake's debut album without lifting my nose up to it. Without irony, I have come to love sugary pop music.

There's a new painting hanging in my apartment. Felix and I bought it a few months ago in LA. It's a drawing that's been colorized via computer and printed on canvas. A few years ago, maybe this would have been considered a lower kind of art. But not today. It's a piece done by the artist team Kozyndan (their website is here) and inspired by Japanese anime. The picture shows a famous street corner in Soho, in London, with aliens that are attacking a fruit stand. And not just that. There are elephants, penguins, bunnies, raccoons, gingerbread men, soldiers, tomatoes, potatoes, strawberries and a giant fig all fighting for their survival from the crazy blob-like aliens. Through the hysteria, you can see images of† Kozy growing up from a baby to a woman. On the other side, you can see Dan growing up. And they meet in the middle, hold hands and walk down the street growing old together.

Without knowing it at the time, Felix and I bought a very romantic art piece! It's hardcore post-kitsch, I guess. Everything in it is kitsch, in any case. But it's not kitsch. The impact it has is hysterical beauty.

I guess I've learned that it's the easier road to be a hipster and make fun of things, and to point out banality. For about 30 years, many post-modern artists poked fun at lower art. Jeff Koons had a field day with porcelain. Mike Kelly photographed torn-up stuffed animals. Chris Burden had himself shot. Ridem' > cowboys.

But maybe there's something to be said about challenging yourself and being straightforward too. And maybe my generation is making that shift. Maybe we're waking up out of something. Would Tim Burton make "Edward Scissorhands" now? Now I think it was almost a period piece. We've already made fun of the '50s. Maybe there's nothing else to make fun of. What's left to make fun of? The Victorians?

David Lynch was a big thing for kids my age, but these days I'm more into "Lost in Translation," which I've seen twice, and in movie theaters. The last time I saw a movie twice in the theater, it was "Fargo." Animals, for instance, are no longer ironic to me. Before, I used to poke fun at life on a 1950's farm and I collected plastic jungle animals. Now I find all the little guys in the painting Felix and I bought wonderful and playful.

My view has changed. The irony has mostly lifted (but never forgotten!). However, my constant playfulness is still there. Today it seems like anything goes -- even with the knowledge of ironic kitsch. It would be cool to own one of Mike Kelly's photographs as a historical piece, but it doesn't hold much meaning to me anymore. There is no sense of inspiration there; it's just a piece of work that inspired me once. I think there are a lot of creative people out there now who embrace lower art, who embrace nature, and who embrace culture. Perhaps they are becoming more romantic rather than ironic, like the German artists who escaped to the hills in WWII and abandoned Dada art.

Dragonfly (2001): Bye-bye irony

Me, I'm drawing insects and fish. Insects and animals are much smarter than people. And drawing fish is wicked -- those wacky eyes kill me every time! I would love to spend more time with scientists and† artists who love nature and are blown away by its uncontrollable force. I am forever left awestruck by its power over us, as we are left totally vulnerable and subject to chance. Irony seems so yesterday. Today, rolling the dice is more my speed.

-- By Michelle Vaughan

Many thanks to Michelle, er, Turbokitty. She can be reached at meeshev at jetemail dot net.



posted by Michael at December 15, 2003


I read this and heave a huge sigh. I'm glad Michelle has finally found her way, artistically (and it sounds like in other aspects of her life as well.) But it reminds me of why I knew, within weeks of hitting art school, that I wasn't very interested in having a career in the visual arts. I was 30 years old when I went back to art school, and it rapidly became apparent to me that being successful in the art-world had a lot of disturbing similarities to being popular in high school. You weren't going to achieve either by just "being yourself"; you were going to have to factor in the group-think mind-set of the people who were going to be judging you. (Granted, a few lucky people don't have to change themselves to be popular in high school or successful in the art world, they luck out and hit the sweet spot just the way they are. For better or worse, however, I'm not one of them.) Also, not to put too fine a point on it, most of the "judges" are not qualified to or interested in evaluating art from a perspective of 'the ages.' Most of the faculty at my art school didn't seem to have much distance on the trends of the moment (refer to Michelle's piece for what they were back in the 1980s). So I ended up playing "rebel" which actually (perversely) got me noticed--hardly anyone in this haven of so-called 'free thinking' knew what to make of someone who was openly skeptical about contemporary art-world orthodoxy.

I understand that fine art departments think that they are preparing children for the real world of contemporary art and all, but it seems to me that something's seriously screwed up when that amounts to telling people to, in effect, slavishly follow the fashion(s)of the moment.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 15, 2003 2:21 PM

Interesting article. J herself ran screaming from the Fine Art Dept after they dismissed Michealangelo as a "mere illustrator" and asked them to step on paper to "rid themselves of fear."

Also interesting in that it seems to be
the evil doppleganger FIT. I have unending tech and craft. If I see one more photorealistic brick wall I'm going to burst into tears. The
students are so honest and earnest and hardworking, and yet so oblivious. You can't imagine irony ever penetrating their unicorn



Posted by: jleavitt on December 15, 2003 7:30 PM

When I used to help buddies with their installations at galleries back in the Miniapple, I wore what I've always worn: T-shirt and jeans. Well, of course, that wasn't the costume at the time (which was just west of goth, but south of taste and hygiene). So, I would get outright "fuck off and who are you?" when I would pop into a room where I hadn't been introduced and would ask for another board or light fixture. Because I would never be a "rebel" and put on the costume, I would always be treated with disdain. I laughed and laughed. They hated that, too.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on December 15, 2003 8:35 PM

Is an education focused on the arts practical? I look through the want adds periodically and I donít see a whole lot of ads for artist. With all the hard work, effort, education, time networking, all the heart ache and rejection, dealing with the crazy instructors, is it really worth it? I have come across a few ďArtistsĒ particularly years ago in college. The haughty demeanor was almost intolerable (among some not all), especially compared to the meek and mild temperament of many engineers and engineering students. In my thinking an engineer is more an artist than those in the arts. As an engineer, you have to come up with innovative approaches to create new technologies or methods of repair or design. You are not only concerned with the appearance, but you have to make sure that peoples lives are not put in jeopardy by your product. The scope and depth of projects typically are farther in complexity and expense than the vast majority of art projects. That being said, I also feel we all (every one of us) have methods of expressing the ďartĒ which is in each of us. I took a class that approached the subject of Humanity in the Arts, and the definition of a work of art has three criterions.

1, it was created by a human,
2 it was created with the intent to be a work of art,
3 an ďexpertĒ in the realm of art has judged it to be a work of art.

Before I go on maybe I should just say I donít get it. The whole go out of my way and look for punishment because I am into art thing. The lucky artists I know have gone on and gotten jobs as art teachers. The almost as lucky have gotten jobs in a myriad of other fields. They did the art thing only for themselves and then got busy with more expense in getting trained for a profession that will support them. It almost makes sense to tell anyone who ever wants to get into the arts as a profession to look on their list of careers and go to number two or three and treat art as a hobby. Thatís predominantly how I view writing.

So far, the topics covered that I felt were the best are:

1, the growing healthcare epidemic, I especially like the point made my Frederick that obesity in the U.S. is furthering all of the costs and problems this nation now faces with health insurance. It begs for a national emphasis made on diet and exercise.

2, The difficulties beset on anyone trying to make a living as a writer. I think the major point has been made for the difficulty as a book author, but the writing profession in general sounds very competitive indeed.

3, I canít find it now, but I thought there was a writing that addressed overpopulation.

Topics that may have already been covered, but are worthy of consideration are:

1, The affect of and increase of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria

2, Are there asteroids that we canít currently see that might be on a collision course of Earth. What can we do to increase early detection time? What can we do to stop or divert an asteroids course?

3, How accurate or valid is Ted Turners expectation of endangered or extinct humans in the next 50 years.

4, Alternative Energy supplies. If the people who are the major oil suppliers are setting up terrorist attacks, why not devalue their only natural resource by setting up cleaner alternative energy as its replacement.

5, Women of child bearing age are warned not to eat Tuna. Think about that. How polluted are the oceans that we are now having to worry about eating food that comes from it. How do we help the world oceans come back?

6, What has been happening at the world conferences where leaders of the world meet in the name of you and me? Shouldnít that be among the most commonly discussed topics? I am starting to get more involved, but I am weak in this area as well.

5, How far away from global warming the ice caps are we?

A new topic thread that would be nice is name the invention or creation that needs an inventor.

1, A material that would be super conductive at room temperature (and not cost prohibitive) would revolutionize the world as we know it.

2, The fusion reactor.

3, research into traveling near, at, or beyond the speed of light. I seem to remember someone saying that light was the theoretical maximum speed. It would be a nice theory to break. I would hate to hit a speed bump while at that speed though.

4, The development of nano technology. Small robots that could be injected into the blood stream to help clear away cholesterol deposits or cancer cells.

Well here are my tangent thoughts.



Posted by: ShipShape on December 15, 2003 10:16 PM


A thousand pardons, I spelled your name wrong.

Posted by: Shipshape on December 15, 2003 10:24 PM

I too am of Turbokittyís generation (36 y.o.), and I feel that I had a similar experience in architecture school. In my estimation, I was singled out for my talent, but I never came away from the experience feeling that I had learned anything worthwhile. This could have been youthful hubris, and the passion of meeting some incredibly smart, interesting people who made me feel not so alone in my thinking (having come from a small Midwestern town, Flint, Michigan), and simply rebelling against the status quo. It has not been an easy career path. I only wish that my transition from the realm of the professional world, which I find completely out of my character and yet have tried to function in for over ten years, into the realm of the more ephemeral literary/artistic world could be made now without so much hand-wringing. I am on the verge of a career change, returning to grad school for a creative writing program and a degree that most consider spurious and useless. I am pursuing it now because I am 36 years old, and I figure if not now, when? I donít have a lot of expectations, in any case. Iíve already proven to myself what I can do, and Iím now too old for anyone to tell me what I cannot do for myself.

The architecture schools promote much conservative careerism, and if you are slightly edgy you stand out, you are warily guided into stifling your talent (at least, it was this way for me). Of course, thereís more to this story, self-doubt, questioning, bad job decisions, etc. I.e., getting into the job market you soon discover that the Ďrealí world is not a comfortable place to be. I have done the career, and have enjoyed its rewards and pitfalls, none the less. In hindsight, however, I wish that I would have given up architecture school and pursued the writing that was so much more amenable to my temperament. But then would I now be lamenting having not gone into architecture school?

Perhaps because of being in school with those dynamic people, one comes away with the ability to see things anew ten years later. I believe I have never lost that ability, and that, for all my laments about the architecture studies, I honed that ability when I was in school. This is also why Iím willing to fling myself into a new unknown. I think that if you can feel you are seeing things in new ways, you are still learning, and growing. I wonder how many people can honestly say this at thirty-plus. Iíve always thought it was the norm.

Posted by: on December 15, 2003 11:14 PM

There used to be ads in the NY Times for Package designers, Textile Illustrators, and other "workhorse" jobs. The job market collapsed with the introduction of the computer and all the workhorse jobs become more internal and the jobs are now in trade journals.

Somtimes I think an art career would be more attractive if schools played up the practical, business-oriented side. It's become alot more entrpenural and freelance-oriented (a glut of grpahic designers in the late 90s) but everytpe of job is available, if some digging has to be done.


Posted by: jleavitt on December 16, 2003 8:41 AM

I got some solid advice at UCLA once, from a substitute art teacher filling in for Charles Ray - she said "Do something else for money. Don't expect that your art will earn you a living. Make sure it's a job that has nothing to do with art and the kind of hours that will allow you to make art on the side." She suggested getting up early and working in a bakery (in LA you can actually do that and pay the bills), which ends around 3pm so you could pick up the art after the shift. She wasn't an art star. She was a pretty good substitute teacher though, and the only person I remember giving me any practical advise. Conceptual art school does not prepare you for the "real world" at all. I wasn't really expecting it to either.

My day job is freelance financial consulting. No one can believe I'm an artist when I begin working with a new client. I have pulled my hours down so that I am working 4 days a week. This gives me a little more time to create art on the side. It seems to be working and I have been really pleased.

Posted by: TurboKitty on December 16, 2003 11:14 AM

Turbo Kitty,

What can I say, I should have left my tangent thoughts off the page and then wrote in praise for your kindness in sharing how your perseptions have changed with time and experience.

It was a good read.

kind regards


Posted by: ShipShape on December 17, 2003 5:47 AM

I'm an artist in the same age range - 35. Reading the above posts, I feel lucky to have gone to the Rhode Island School of Design, which hit a good balance between technical knowledge and innovation. I was expected both to have skills and to be original. I think the UCLA approach - Don't bore me! - leads to insincere grandstanding. It looks like Turbokitty agrees.

Posted by: franklin on December 17, 2003 5:25 PM

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