It almost sounds too good to be true: an ex-Disney On Ice skater turned expatriate whose deep immersion in pop culture leaves him gasping for air. Betrayed by art school and disillusioned by commerce, the young, graceful artist learns a new language and escapes to a foreign country, where boxes are made to be disassembled, and lines drawn to be written over. He steps under Barcelonaâ€™s Arc de Triomf and falls in love â€“ first with the city, then with the street, then with a girl â€“ and his life finally becomes what he wants it to be. He moves forward constantly, stepping out of the studio to paste, into it to paint, and all around the city to find what will inspire him next. Heâ€™s Juan Carlos Noria, and his story is unlike anything youâ€™ve ever heard.
“When I came out of school in 1986 I realized that I’d been through a meat grinder. I had no idea who I was.”
Format: Iâ€™ve interviewed a lot of artists, and you have one of the most interesting backgrounds of them all. Tell us about your past…and Disney On Ice.
Juan Carlos Noria: I always laugh out loud when [Disney and I] are paired up in a sentence. It was actually Kenneth Feld/Walt Disney On Ice. I didn’t work for Disney but for the devilish man that has the rights to use the name. I’ll tell you my past but I’ll start from today.
As of five years ago, I live in Barcelona. My love affair with this city started as soon as I stepped out of the Arc de Triomf metro station. There were many small reasons for my exodus from the North American planet and they all seemed to come together at once to give me one big reason for leaving. I considered it and took it as a sign. I think that working for Kenneth Feld and Disney at the end of my amateur skating career made me very aware of the absurdity of ice shows, American pop culture, and big business. That experience was so taxing that I saw it as the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was a major sign. Looking back on the combined twenty-seven years of skating, it offered me many levels of personal understanding and taught me a lot. I traveled the entire world, but more than that, I got to see first hand some of the most absurd, competitive, childish, hypocritical, and destructive human behavior known to woman and man. It was just like watching a Fellini movie on acid. It was an education in human behavior, and I didn’t like what I saw.
I tend to be a pessimist with strong beliefs and deep love for humanity. The North American lifestyle and pace constantly brought out the pessimistic side of me. My focus on the bad aspects of the capitalist system had become so acute from my struggling-artist stance that I couldn’t see anything else. When I looked at the system we lived in, I felt increasingly angry, so I became an angry person. Every time I saw a Hummer I got angry and cringed; every time I heard kids talkin’ like gangstas I got angry and cringed; every time I saw an ad belittle women I got angry and cringed; every time I watched the news I got angry and cringed â€“ and I especially cringed and got angry when I saw George Bushâ€™s face: too many lies, too much focus on material possessions. I needed a change and could afford change because I had nothing tying me down! My city of birth, Caracas, Venezuela, set me on route to dominating the Spanish language and with a couple of thousand bucks in my pockets from selling all my stuff and a little courage in my heart, I was on my way to Barcelona. It all boiled down to the simple idea that if I was going to starve as an artist, I might as well do it in a warm climate and in a country known for a deep appreciation of culture.
Being a relatively unknown artist making art for a living has its punishing moments, and anywhere you go in this world, being an artist can be difficult. So needless to say, things were very difficult for a while, but lately they have improved. As of late, I feel that I’m gaining ground by the week. My girlfriend and I recently had a little girl and are feeling on top of the world. After Alba’s birth my work has a newfound clarity and I feel that I’m much more focused.
Format: Do you still skate?
Juan Carlos Noria: [Laughs] Skating? What’s that?
Format: Youâ€™ve lived all over the world, but in 2004 you left to find â€œtranquiloâ€ in Barcelona. Did you find it there?
Juan Carlos Noria: I have found some of what I need here in Spain. Simple things like very affordable Vino Tinto and amazing olive oils. Barcelona has offered me an opportunity to reinvent myself as a person. My art and my person are inseparable, so if I reinvent “me,” my work will undoubtedly change, and I welcome change. The work I’m just beginning to make is exactly what I see in my minds eye. I’m looking forward to this particular creative flow.
I’m running towards my dream of being a painter that is unique and well paid â€“ but I wouldn’t call it “running.â€ It seems more like a slow crawl over slippery rocks and broken glass. I mean that in the best, most positive way, and I wouldn’t change it for a platinum watch.
Format: I love your bio because there is not one drop of artsy bullshit in itâ€“it is just very honest, and seemingly, very you. Can we depend on finding this sort of transparency in your work as well?
Juan Carlos Noria: This is a great question. I have to say that we are all hypocrites in one way or another. I am a hypocrite! I talk big angry talk about sweatshops and people’s â€œlack of vision” on environmental issues, but I buy underwear made in Turkey and take long, hot showers. So I’m not much of a good example. Having said this though, my ideas are true to my feelings, and my feelings are true to my art. So, overlooking some of my actions as the weak mortal that I am, I tend to make paintings with a message that fossilizes my ideas, and in that way I can use them as my proper guide or bible. You can count on finding some kind of transparency in my work.
Format: Help me sort this out: you work under the names of Juan Carlos Noria, Dixon, and Royal â€“ are there differences in the way you express yourself under each moniker?
Juan Carlos Noria: This question stems from my days in art high school. I did a three-year art program that turned into four, if you know what I mean. When I came out of school in 1986, I realized that I’d been through a meat grinder. I had no idea who I was. School really confused me. I think that the teacher’s intent was not necessarily to break me and put me back together as a commodity for the “art business” world, but that’s what happened to me.
I felt pressured to find a style and stick to it for commercial purposes. I was told to focus on one style, and taught to focus my creative energy on the customer needs. My passion for art and creativity was far too vast and I didn’t want to be limited, so I didn’t listen. I illustrated in one style and painted in another while I did photography and sculpture and life drawing. During this time in my life, I was Juan Carlos Noria.
In 1992 or 1993, my friend Evoke formally introduced me to graffiti. At that time, I was being challenged with the idea of selling my work to make ends meet, and to do so I had to compartmentalize. I knew that buyers would wonder why Juan’s style was so undefined. To avoid this problem I had to find names for each of my styles. Aliases also worked well for me when it came to working in the street. When I first started doing graffiti, I tried my hand at spray paint, but it just wasn’t my thing. So I moved to stencil work but I always felt limited by this practice. Then I went into postering and stickering. This is where I could really show off my illustrative abilities. The name I chose for this style was Tango.
After a few years of working in the street I was told by a few friends in the graffiti world that Tango was wanted by the authorities, so I changed my name to Royal. I used this name to remind me that anything in the hands of pop culture can be turned into a tattered and torn bargain-bin delight. While I traveled in Thailand, I found that “Royalty” was and is truly sacred. When I returned to North America, there was a shoe brand named Royal, the local Chinese food place was named Royal, the hotel downtown was named Royal, and even a gelatin in the supermarket was Royal–so I found â€œRoyalâ€ to be the perfect fit for the kind of work that I do.
One day, just outside my workspace, there was a utility post cover that had been unscrewed and had fallen on the sidewalk. Utility post covers are the covers for the entry holes that allow access to the electrical wires for the utility street light posts. I decided to take it upstairs and paint it, and reattach it to the post. It was a special moment for me because I realized that there were so many post covers in the city and that no one else was doing this sort of thing to. While I was up in my studio, it was time to “brand” my first post cover and to do that I needed a name. Dixon is the name of a company that makes markers. Being a tool that I used everyday to draw in the streets, I thought it was a perfect fit.
Royal has its very distinct line work, an illustrative style that blooms from my heart; and Dixon has a painterly and pop art based style that gains its strength in my head. Both styles are message-based and they stem from within me and from my ideas of the world.
Format: Your work is full of references to pop culture, and frequently makes fun of or criticizes it in some way. Can you put what you are trying to say in those paintings into words?
Juan Carlos Noria: Putting words to what I’m trying to communicate in the paintings is difficult, but if I put all my paintings into a pot, and reduced the entire lot into a light broth, I would call it Burlesque Pop. My paintings invite pop culture to devour itself. I use pop to neutralize pop. I have a love-hate relationship with the monster. I feel better when I process what clogs my heart and mind; I feel better when I paint issues that have to do with this crazy little world we’ve created and protect.
Format: What I love about your work is that even though you have a fairly distinct style, you donâ€™t lock yourself into one subject matter. You paint a variety of things, with a variety of things, on a variety of things. How important is it to you to experiment with new subjects, styles, and mediums?
Juan Carlos Noria: This is a great question. I’m glad you noticed. I don’t even know if people notice that I don’t always paint on canvas or that I take on thirty different mediums or that I hate to stand still with subject matter. It is of the utmost importance to me to experiment with new subjects, styles, and mediums. I never want to be known as the guy that just paints flowers, or does portraits, or paints naked women. I want to be all things to all people and then change it up again so that they have no idea where the freshness is coming from. [Laughs.]
It is so important to me to be well-rounded, to never stop creating, and above all, to never be afraid. When I get tired of illustrating I go to my painting, and when I start hating painting I go to the streets and do graffiti and then back again. Each element feeds the next. I’ve never been known to burn out or to have â€œwriters block.â€ I’m always feeling fresh and new and alive in my art.
Format: You paint as a career, but you are also pretty active on the street. Street art is ephemeral, and studio art is meant to be around for a long, long time, and it seems like doing both of those things simultaneously would result in a different experience than pursuing each one individually. Would you say thatâ€™s true?
Juan Carlos Noria: You’re barking up the right tree with this question. It’s not often asked in this particular way, but it’s very refreshing to read it in this way.
I could not just make art for the gallery without making it in the street. I would feel so selfish if I just made proper art for galleries or products. On the other hand, I would feel empty if I just made art in the street. The experiences are extremely different as you say, and now that I’m aware of them both, I could not turn my back on either of them. In my case, I can’t listen to Kenny G all the time; I gotta have my Tom Waits too [laughs].
Format: How are you hoping to see your work evolve in the next year?
Juan Carlos Noria: My work will undoubtedly evolve without me having dialogue with my creativity or imagination. It has always happened and it will continue to occur instinctively. I’m not afraid of making changes or letting my work move freely. I do hope to reach a level of visual jazzâ€“a kind of controlled abstraction.
I’ve painted for many years and itâ€™s been [long enough] to come to the point where I’ve started not to care too much what people think of my work. I’m tending to reach deeper in my soul for a visual language that is more abstract while keeping the pop communication and visual language intact. I’m also reaching deeper into my canvases. I’m trying to create the depth that I never had.
More Info: http://www.juancarlosnoria.ca/