Living in Color
- Carsie Blanton uses an old musical form to help change the way women are perceived today.
- From a very young age, life has been a dance for choreographer Matthew Neenan.
- Amedeo Modigliani died a broken man, but his art has endured.
- Cuban-American artist Luis Cruz Azaceta reflects on modern society’s great tragedies.
- Art & Design
- Art & Design
Coming up on Articulate. Carsie Blanton is using an old school musical form, jazz, to help change the way women are perceived today.
Carsie Blanton: One of the ways to combat misogyny is to just sort of not accept it as a fact.
From a young age, life has been a dance for choreographer Matthew Neenan.
Matthew Neenan: I was obsessed with different companies. I would see like casting and who was given what role and why were they given that role and why other dancers were left out. Like, that was kind of fascinating to me.
Amedeo Modigliani died a broken man, his art has endured.
Ann Moss: His goals to create harmony and balance and a classical beauty are always there.
And since the 1970s, the paintings and drawings of the Cuban American artist Luis Cruz Azaceta have reflected on some of society’s great modern tragedies.
Luis Cruz Azaceta: For me, art is a voice and is also a weapon. That with it we can change certain aspects of society.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
We all know a man can be a delicate thing
He can be soft and sweet like sugar wrapped in butter
And I don’t mind your company
But if you want to make me sing
Keep in mind that I am not your mother
On first listen, Carsie Blanton’s jazz tunes and pop music might invoke nostalgia. But listen more carefully and inside her sultry songs, you’ll find an agenda for female empowerment that’s distinctly of today.
Show me something I can rely on
Or I would rather be alone
You give your heart but I want to see your backbone
Every time you talk me
There’s worry in your eyes
Now in her early 30s, she’s been in the songwriting game for more half her life and has some firmly held beliefs about her place in the world.
Carsie Blanton: I think the way to be mentally healthy as an artist is to consider it a vocation. So this is my life’s work, regardless of what the external reaction is for people.
That said, the external reaction of those who encounter Blanton is usually pretty positive and she’s one of an increasing number of independent performers who figured out how to leverage that enthusiasm into a living.
Blanton: The new model that I’m working with is sort of a patronage model, where I make the work and I give it away constantly. That’s all I do. Here’s a CD, it’s free. Here’s a new song, it’s online. And I invite people to pay me for those things if they want to.
AJC: It’s a tip jar.
Blanton: Yeah, it’s a tip jar.
AJC: How is that working out?
Blanton: It works fine. I mean, I’m not getting rich off it, but also I haven’t had to get a second job and so I’m happy. And I’ve been surprised by how generous my fans are. And I think it’s partly because I’m giving things away all the time that they feel like I trust them and like I’m making my work not for economic reasons. And that makes them feel more generous than they otherwise would.
AJC: You have to get them to believe that first of all.
AJC: And that’s kind of a tough sell.
Blanton: Yeah. Well then, I write about it a lot, I talk about it on stage. I’m always kind of trying to present this model of art is not a commodity. Art is a vocation. And I do this because it’s my vocation and I’m here to bring you something from the sort of spiritual plane and I want you to enjoy it. That’s all I’m about. And the sort of monetary exchange is just this other thing that happens over here on the side when I’m done. It’s peripheral. And I’m okay with that. I don’t think like fame or riches are really part of the deal, although a lot of people think of it that way, especially if you’re making pop music. They think like if you’re successful, that means you’re famous and you’re rich. But actually to be successful means you’re making music that you love and that’s it. So I consider myself very successful.
AJC: Do you then lose yourself in craft?
Blanton: Oh yeah.
AJC: Because that’s the actual joy of art is the loss of self.
Blanton: That is the only thing that makes me feel like the demons are not even there. I don’t even remember who they are, they’re not talking to me. Is when I’m playing a show and I feel really present or I’m writing a song and I feel really present or I’m getting really playful and creative in the studio. Those are the times that it feels like I’m definitely doing the right thing with my life. And the rest of the time, it’s mixed bag.
AJC: Isn’t it odd that the times when we most feel like ourselves is when we stop thinking about who we are?
Blanton: No, it’s not odd at all. Because I think our true selves are not the ones that think all the time about who we are. The true self is the one who’s experiencing it, has pleasure and joy and gets to interact with other people and make things.
And when Blanton is at her creative best, she’s in New Orleans in a tiny studio in her backyard she’s lovingly named the Watermelon.
Blanton: It’s my favorite thing in the world. It’s my favorite place to be and it makes me the happiest to go there. It is a sacred creative space and so when I’m home, I go in there every day and I sit for a few hours. And sometimes I write, sometimes I play, and sometimes I don’t do anything, but it all feels like part of the creative process.
The latest fruit of the Watermelon is Blanton’s 2016 album So Ferocious, a collection of songs each designed to embody her own personal rebellion against sexism.
Blanton: My choice as a woman in the world is to ferociously be myself and to do that in spite of the expectations of other people around me. This record is sort of a document of that so all the songs are saying “Here’s another way that I’m being myself and doing it proudly and publicly.” And it’s sort of an invitation to other people, especially to women, to live that way as well. Because I think one of the ways to combat misogyny is to just sort of not accept it as a fact.
AJC: Is that hard?
Blanton: No it’s fun, totally fun.
I know I got a lot of nerve
I ought to get what I deserve
Half a dozen men to serve me
It stands to reason
A couple of them feed me sweets
Couple more to rub my feets
And one or two between my sheets
If I find it pleasing I roll up all vim and vigor
Chomping at the bit with my finger on the trigger
Pitching a fit all lipstick and vinegar
Blanton: My intention in making that video was to make people, especially men, uncomfortable. So I wanted them to watch the video and to think to themselves “Oh, this doesn’t feel good. I feel like maybe I should go work out.” Like “I don’t have the right body type.” So I want men to have the experience that women have when they watch any music video or most movies ever, where it’s like the women are these sort of physical ideals and that’s why they get to have access to the men and the men have all the power. And so in my fantasy sex mansion in the “Vim and Vigor” video, I have all the power, the men are all servants of mine, and they only get to be my servants because they’re hot. So I love objectifying men. I do it as much as possible.
Cause I got moxie
And you don’t scare me
No, you don’t scare me
You don’t scare me
Matthew Neenan is one of today’s most sought after choreographers. His special gift? The ability to make dancers look hypernatural.
Matthew Neenan: I always say to the dancers, “I want it to look like you made up the steps right there and right then.” I get bored with a lot of choreography where it looks too controlled and everything’s on a certain count. He’s got you and you fall off your foot like so what? Just go with it. It doesn’t have to be this like “I gotta do a perfect ponche and I don’t want to upset him,” you know? Yes! I use the word spontaneity a lot in my rehearsal process. Even if it’s a piece that they keep doing over and over and over again, it always has to look spontaneous I think, for the audience to believe it.
AJC: How do you work with somebody who wants to be that doll-like ballerina?
Neenan: I think maybe I tend to not cast them. You know, it’s when I go to certain companies and companies that I haven’t worked at yet and you have that like two to three day audition day, where you with all the dancers. You can see the ones right away who kind of hide in the back of the room or who just don’t want to, like, explore the movement. They just kind of want to be told what to do. And I usually tend to look at the dancer who’s like investigating it or who goes to the side and starts to find it in their body, how they can pursue it. And then I’m like “Oh, I want to work with that person because I’m gonna learn from them too. I’m gonna learn from their physical being as to where this piece should go.”
From childhood, Neenan was gifted with the unusual ability to comfortably dance both male and female parts. Perhaps as a result, his work today shows a studied disregard for ballet’s traditional gender roles.
Neenan: I always tell the women “Don’t be pretty. Be as strong as the man.” A lot of times the women are partnering the men. There’s a lot of female-female, male-male partnering in a lot of my work which might have been created on a guy, a woman has done it, and vice versa. I love doing that.
Neenan has been immersed in dance for most of his life. By age seven, he was enrolled in the Boston School of Ballet and in his free time began to explore choreography.
Neenan: I would make dances up with my neighborhood friends all the time. But we all kind of did it, so I thought that was just kind of what you did. But I think it was more junior high, high school era, I started to really think about “Oh, I think I’d like to do that when I’m older.” I was also obsessed with different companies. I would see, like, casting and who was given what role and why were they given that role and why other dancers were left out. Like that was kind of fascinating to me. Especially if I didn’t agree with it, you know? This was even when I was a young student at Boston Ballet School and I would always have criticism like “She shouldn’t have done that role, it should have been this woman.” My mom would have been like “Yeah, you’re right.” Like I already was invested with that kind of thinking. Like the other side of it I thought was always fascinating.
Neenan moved to New York with his sister to attend La Guardia High School, the fabled fame academy of TV and film. From there, the School of American Ballet, and then in 1994 to Pennsylvania Ballet, where he would soon be given his first commissions as a choreographer, often directing more senior dancers than himself. A challenge he rose to, eventually.
Neenan: I think when I was younger, especially because I was choreographing on my peers and choreographing on even people who were a lot older than me. So you kinda wanted to say it but you wouldn’t and you were like “Well, it would happen.” But then sometimes it would get on stage and you’d be like “Yeah, but it didn’t happen.” You held back. And now I don’t hold back.
AJC: Because you’re an old geezer now.
Neenan: Yeah, exactly.
In 2007, while still at the height of his powers, Matthew Neenan retired from performing.
Neenan: I loved dancing, but I didn’t love it all the time and performing could be hard for me. I had stage fright, I got nervous a lot, especially with roles I wasn’t comfortable with. I was strong but, you know, I’m super hyper flexible so certain lifts were really hard for me. Which I could do, but I would always stress out about “What if I don’t make it in the show? What if I drop her?” Those things that you think about while you’re putting your makeup on.
AJC: And you’re playing what through in your head? The failures are being played through in your head?
Neenan: Yeah. And that I don’t miss. It would just like deplete me, to the point where I was like “I don’t even think I can go out on stage right now because I’ve just wasted so much energy thinking about it.” As I got older, that got much better. I got much more confident. And I was probably the best dancer and performer I was when I retired. So I also wanted to go out on a bang.
AJC: Are you always going to have to have the ability to speak with your body?
Neenan: I’m grateful for what I can do now and as time goes on, I mean, even you see rehearsal footage of Jerome Robins in his 70s. And he still was moving around. He’d be in his sneakers, but he still was moving around, definitely showing the character and what the character was supposed to do. I’m like, well, if that can be me in my 70s, that would be great.
The Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani died from tuberculosis at age 35, a broken man. And though he had begun to gain recognition for his modernist paintings and sculptures with their distinct elongated faces, at the time of his premature death in 1920, he was destitute, addicted to drugs and drink. Today, he is among the most sought-after, most highly-coveted, and most expensive artists. In 1906, a 20-year-old Modigliani moved from his hometown on the Tuscan coast to the center of the art world, Paris. Though immersed in a community of avant-garde artists, including his mentor the great Constantin Brancusi, Modigliani’s artistic vision was singular.
Ann Moss: His goals to create harmony and balance and a classical beauty are always there.
According to Barnes docent Ann Moss, Modigliani in particular had one continuously identifiable trait in the execution of his artistic vision.
Moss: Art historians always remark on his blank, unfocused eyes and comment on their sightless gaze. Some of his eyes appear like this. These are a clear blue. Some are black. They’re very masklike. And so that goes back to an early influence of African masks so you have this sense of inward and looking outward at the same time.
Nowhere is the influence of African masks more obvious than in Modigliani’s sculptures. His dedication to the form was brief, from 1909 when he met Brancusi until 1914. One of Modigliani’s rare beauties has spent most of its life in a corner of a balcony at the Barnes Foundation.
Moss: It’s one of those treasures at the Barnes that’s very easy to overlook when you visit. It is very rare. There are only 28 authenticated sculptures made by Modigliani. 26 of them are heads, all variations on a stylized bust.
Modigliani continued to set himself apart with his sculptural technique, adopted from his mentor Brancusi.
Moss: Which was to carve directly into the stone. So that’s very different from the fashion of the time, which was to make sculptures by making preliminary models in wax or clay before you would cast a work. Modigliani made his heads out of limestone blocks that he found and scavenged from building sites around Paris.
In his portraits, Modigliani used flattened shapes and frontal orientation to emphasize the two-dimensionality of paint on canvas. In his sculptures too, he liked to remind the viewer that they were looking at objects.
Moss: He really did love to show the signs of his chiseling process. And you can see that really easily where he adds texture to her hair. And these marks added to the effects he was trying to create. Sensuality, tactility, and, I think, a certain allure.
For Modigliani, there were two sources that inspired this particular head and they are Egyptian sculpture and African masks. Masks from the Guro and Bole peoples of Ivory Coast, from their characteristic distortions and simplifications. And so, you see a severely elongated face, almond-shaped sightless eyes, a long narrow nose, which at the time was described as “a wedge of brie that could easily be broken off.” You have a rounded or elliptical mouth and a long columnar neck. The fringe of her hair on her forehead is clearly delineated, and you can even notice flattened pearl-like earrings and these really intriguing ornamental reliefs at the outer corners of her eyes. They’re not tears, and they might be a reference to scarification patterns on African masks.
For Modigliani, the allure of the heads lay in strength and numbers. He had always meant them to be displayed in groups, but financial hardship and illness would force him to sell them individually. But for a time, they did all live together in the outdoor studio he shared with Brancusi, which was also a gathering place for other artists.
Moss: For example, the sculptor Jacob Epstein remembered how when he visited Modigliani at night, there would be 9 or 10 long heads displayed, each with a lit candle on top. And he came away with this sense of having been in a primitive temple. The summer before he died, there was a big show in London of his work and it was very successful and people were clamoring for his masterpieces. And unfortunately for Modigliani, he was, by that point, too ill to attend and he never really saw the financial success because had he lived, there would have been plenty of money.
Indeed today, Modigliani’s works are some of the art world’s most coveted prizes. In November 2015, one of his paintings fetched more than $170,000,000 at Christie’s New York, one of the most expensive works of art ever sold. But for Barnes docent Ann Moss, who lives with Amedeo Modigliani’s beauty almost every day, his value is more ethereal.
Moss: In 1913, toward the end of his sculpting period, he made a visit home and wrote back to a friend in Paris on the back of a postcard, “Happiness is an angel with a strict face.” And I think by the word “strict” he meant “majestic and solemn.” And to conjure a choir of angels, each with a lit candle at the ready.
My friend hates his father.
His father hates his mother.
His mother is leaving his father.
I look at my watch. I stretch a canvas.
I make some coals.
I use a two-and-a-half inch brush.
I listen to Gregorian chants and Cuban music.
I change my style.
I use acrylic paint.
I nail plywood into the canvas.
I look at myself in the mirror.
I kill a roach.
I make a painting of a barricade.
Tomorrow is coming.
Tomorrow is today.
Today is now.
Now is present.
For nearly half a century, Luis Cruz Azaceta’s drawings and paintings have dared to face some of society’s most difficult tragedies head on. Raised in 1950s Cuba, by the time an 18-year-old Azaceta moved to New York City, the violence, injustice, and hardship he had witnessed during the Batista regime and subsequent revolution had left a permanent mark on his worldview, and on his work.
Azaceta: I don’t like sentimental paintings. I like them from reality, face on. And my work has always been like that, very direct. I don’t use props in a way to diminish the impact that I want in a work of art. I like paintings that jump out of the walls. You know, I don’t like harmonies. I like cacophonies in the painting—things that sometimes doesn’t fit together, to create a visual dissonance in the work. To me, art is a voice and is also a weapon. That with it, we can change certain aspects of society.
Early in his career, Azaceta developed a series of works addressing the human condition. From then on, his subject matter would reflect society’s various crises as they arose. From the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s to Hurricane Katrina, which, in 2005, decimated New Orleans—where Azaceta and his family had been living since 1992. Two more recent works responded to the Sandy Hook shootings and the Boston bombing.
Azaceta: Emotion is like how cruel we are to each other. We haven’t changed. We’re still animal for thousands of years.
Though initially his work was more representational, since the 1990s, Azaceta’s style has become less literal. He says this is partly thanks to the barrage of violent images, to which we’re all constantly being exposed.
Azaceta: What I do is create all this kind of abstractions to engage the viewer. Just by the title of Aleppo Alone, already being a whole association of things that people have seen on television and the devastation that is happening in that country. So I don’t even have to depict people running, or people going into exile, or people crying, or people get dead on the streets, and all that kind of stuff. I did that back in the ‘80s. But the new work is all abstractions, and I prefer it that way.
Now 74 years old, Luis Azaceta has nothing left to prove. His work is in some of the nation’s most important collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Smithsonian. Still, the painter says he’s far from finished.
Azaceta: To me, this is like a religion. I don’t miss one day. Actually, when I go on vacation, or visit my family in New York, or go for a show for two or three days, I’m already antsy to come back and work at the studio. So, you know, I would like to die maybe holding a brush in my hands.