Noelia Towers is a Chicago based artist born and raised in Barcelona.
Towers laboriously detailed paintings investigate the relationship between pain and pleasure. Her practice centers around personal experiences like chronic illness and in most instances the artist uses herself as a subject.
Towers has exhibited her work at Woman Made Gallery and Public Works Gallery in Chicago, De Boer in Los Angeles, Stems gallery in Paris, and Half Gallery in New York.
Hi Noelia, thank you for sitting down with me. Forgive me, but I’m always curious about this first question. How does a regular day look like for you in Chicago, Illinois?
The typical Chicago resident is always eating a deep dish pizza at all times and drinking Malort wherever they go. This is how you can spot them in the wild. They grow in the sewer system.
Being that you were born and raised in Barcelona, what brought you to the windy city?
I met my husband (an American) in Barcelona in 2013 and we fell in love, literally at first sight. I moved to Chicago later on in 2014 to be with him and I have been here for almost 9 years.
If you were to choose where would you prefer living, and since Spain has a rich history of iconic artists, how would you describe the art scenes compared to each other? Any noticeable differences?
The lifestyle in Barcelona is slower-paced, I guess you could say more bohemian, more romantic, and laid back. People are poorer financially speaking but rich in every other aspect. I miss living there for the most part. I was way more social, it was easier to get around and go from point A to B since the city has one of the world’s best public transportation systems, here you’re pretty fucked without a car and all the infrastructure is falling apart. The food is also a million times better there, it’s funny that every time I visit I can eat whatever I want without repercussions, even certain things that make me incredibly sick here in the USA have little to no effect on me back home. However, the city has changed a lot in the time I’ve been gone, and it’s become a giant playground for tourists, it’s like the city’s sole purpose is to cater to them. Visiting is starting to become less and less enjoyable. Rent has skyrocketed, just like everywhere else or at least in most big cities worldwide, but the gap between people’s wages and rent is completely disproportionate over there. I come from a working-class family and have never known what financial stability is, yet making ends meet seems more bearable there than in the US actually. America can be soul-crushing. This country just takes and takes, giving very little back. It’s like textbook capitalism, a machine designed to keep people consuming while simultaneously being consumed themselves. At least they have free healthcare over there (alas, very slow).
When it comes to art history, I know Spain is incredibly culturally rich and the range is wide as well as impactful, but I personally haven’t felt it has had any relevance in the most recent years. I feel like your chances of “making it” as a creative of any kind are higher over here in the USA, or at least that has been the case for me. So many of my creative friends over there struggle severely and have to juggle multiple jobs on top of their artistic endeavors. It’s sad. Art isn’t valued much.
That’s an interesting take, and I hear what you’re saying in regards to Spain’s relevance in recent years. When people talk about Spanish art they always mention the safe classic names, like Dali, Picasso or Goya. Even the newer generation. Why do you think that is? Is it something about developing artists or not supporting your own? What do you think?
You have to consider that Spain went through a civil war followed by 36 years of dictatorship, finished off by the time of the “transition” into a democracy after Franco’s death. Most artists from the Iberian peninsula had to live in exile where some of them found great success, while others weren’t so lucky and ended up being captured and executed (Federico Garcia Lorca being a prime example of this). Art became sterile and devoid of meaning after the war, due to oppression and reforms in education. Culture became overly policed and most works wouldn’t see the light of day. Spain became a desolate landscape, devoid of art. The few artists that remained in the country were able to make art as long as it came from a neutral standpoint where they wouldn’t be considered a threat to the regime (Miro, Tapies, Chillida, etc). Things saw a huge shift during the transition with the birth of La Movida Madrilena, a counter-cultural movement that started in Madrid after Franco’s death. The youth was aching for a scene where they could go mask off and be their true liberated, hedonistic selves, drawing inspiration from the growing punk movement in the UK. It was a crucial time that made an impact worldwide and it felt like Spain was put on the map yet again: Almodovar, Ceesepe, El Hortelano, Ouka Leele, Alberto Garcia-Alix, etc. This all happened in part due to economic growth in the country, but things fizzled out quickly. Nowadays, Spain no longer invests in culture and I think that’s a huge problem. There is not much demand for art and fewer artists as the years go by, in part because most of them find success elsewhere by migrating to neighboring EU countries. Spain is a tourist-based money-making machine. People want to go to El Prado to see Goya’s works, to the Reina Sofia to see Picasso’s Guernica. I guess it’s great to see an art fair happening in Mallorca and Madrid, but there’s little to no interest from local communities; they are focused on survival, not interested in the art market whatsoever, and I do not fault them for that. As a wise man on TV once said: “our culture is what it is, the Bar culture”.
Ok, so do you remember when you started taking drawing seriously? Meaning that you knew you had a talent for it and were better than the other kids.
I never saw myself as having a certain “something” that made me different from anyone else, I simply leaned toward creative things from an early age and didn’t perceive it as a talent or something that made me stand out from the rest. My dad would hand me a slab of wood from a broken shelf and I would start screwing hardware and other items we had around the house in it. It didn’t make much sense but it was incredibly stimulating to me. Then I was given paper and colored pencils and realized the possibilities were endless. One of my earliest childhood memories is being asked what I wanted to be when I grew up and I immediately responded that I wanted to be a painter. I must have been 4 years old, but I had my priorities straight (I did go through my “I want to be a veterinarian” phase though).
I read somewhere that your parents were involved in a grass-roots organization, which let you to begin your painting career at the age of six. What was that experience like? And can you talk to me about the story behind that?
They weren’t! The story goes a little differently, I am actually working on my next newsletter regarding this subject. Long story short: I was very insistent on joining an after-school arts academy that had just opened right around the corner from the place where I grew up. The academy was really expensive, pretty much cost-prohibitive for my parents, but they were willing to make the effort. I was about 6 years old, and the stupid academy asked for a portfolio (who the hell would ask for this from a child). My mom had me do a few doodles on a piece of paper and brought it back to them. I got rejected and my mother was told I should probably choose a different hobby. She did not give up, and motivated by the rejection and fueled by anger, she found this other place in my neighborhood, a grass-roots association a few blocks away that offered painting lessons once or twice a week for almost next to nothing. That’s where I learned everything I know, thanks to my amazing mentor Adelaida, who if I remember correctly was a professor at the fine arts faculty in Barcelona and taught painting lessons in her spare time. She became a very important mother figure to me and I think about her all the time, an absolute angel and an incredible teacher.
That’s a dope story. Thank you for clarifying that. So at the age of 17 you stop painting completely. Why? What’s the backstory there?
I actually stopped painting at around 11 or 12. I was entering my rebellious phase and painting stopped being my thing. I started again when I was 16-17 after feeling like I needed a creative outlet during my baccalauréat days of art school at Escola Massana. It worked for me because we did not pick up a paintbrush whatsoever during my time there, only charcoal live drawing classes, so it felt good to reconnect with my roots
(I am actually terrible at drawing and prefer moving paint around). Once I finished my two years there I fell out of love with art yet again. I was in a very abusive relationship with a man who forced me to work for him and who would repeatedly tell me that art would only ever be a hobby for me. He said that if I wanted to paint I had to stay up all night, after working 10-hour shifts, 6 days a week. It wasn’t until I left that relationship and moved to Chicago (with about 100 Euros to my name) that my husband took me to the art supply store and bought me everything I needed to get started again. This was the biggest act of love and kindness anyone’s ever done for me. He really believed in me from day 1 and wanted to support me in any way possible. I am forever grateful.
What was your thought process like when you decided to pick up your paint brush again? And furthermore, start taking it seriously and pursue being an artist.
I just wanted to get back to the feeling I got from painting when I was a kid. To me, painting is to constantly honor and nurture my inner child, it’s like going back in time and giving myself a big hug. I paint because I need to, for my own sake really, because it makes me who I am and gives me a purpose.
Got it. Let’s talk about your paintings now.. Most of your protagonists are women. Who are they? And what do they represent?
My paintings are usually autobiographical and I mostly use myself as a reference model because I have a very specific idea of how things need to be, however, they have a certain anonymity to them that makes them somewhat relatable when being presented to the viewers.
Staying on the subject. The majority of your paintings feature scenes that are intimate in private situations. What is your inspiration behind them, are you painting from your own experiences or something you have visualized? Also, how would you describe the overall themes?
I think about my paintings as if each one of them was an image paused from a movie: cinematic and still, yet in motion, Almost as though one could press play and continue watching the story unravel. There is an aspect of storytelling within them, and I also like them to be connected, as if they were in communication with one another. I am inspired by my own life and sometimes I have these visions I call “flashing images” that serve as inspiration for a piece. Some of them do not make much sense at the moment, but after some time the meaning starts revealing itself to me, it’s like a very intuitive, guttural process. I have had several epiphanies while working on a piece, kind of like connecting dots that lead me to a place of self-discovery where the more I find out about myself, the more things start to make sense (for better or worse).
I do however hate when things start to feel predictable and easily labeled. I am terrified of labels. There were some people who referred to me as a “BDSM Artist” and it made me incredibly nauseous. I feel like I am constantly in motion, changing, developing new interests, and learning new things that shape the way I see myself and shift my perception of the things around me.
In the near future, I would like to start incorporating found images that have an impact on me, pulling from books, internet archives, movies, etc, and giving them my own touch. I feel like this could be a very freeing experience and would make me feel like I do not necessarily have to commit to a certain “style” (or whatever you want to call it) of painting for the rest of my life. I also think it would be very liberating to not rely solely on my own self-portraiture in order to make a new piece because it can become a very tedious, multi-step process that I genuinely dread sometimes.
My overall themes though will probably always remain the same, assimilating trauma, my upbringing, the correlation between pleasure and pain, death, the visions in my own dreams, the trials and tribulations of being alive in general, and pretty much anything that gets a reaction out of me, enough to be turned into a painting. I am curious to see what the future holds and I am also intrigued to see where my career goes from here. The future is so unpredictable.
What is it about those themes that resonate with you and make you want to document them so passionately?
It kind of feels like going to therapy in a way, the canvas listens to you and never complains. I think everyone in the world has a story to tell and there are just so many ways to do so. Sometimes people struggle to find their purpose in their own life because they are so removed from their creative side. I chose painting, and to me, it truly is a way of healing. I am passionate about those themes because I am constantly thinking about them, so it’s just like finding a way to digest the hard pills to swallow in life. I make paintings that mean something to me because I cannot speak for others, I cannot paint about someone else’s struggles. I guess what I am trying to say is that the passion comes from a commitment to my life’s purpose.
Got it, so when you’re about to start on a new piece, and stare at the blank canvas. Do you already have an idea of what you’re going to paint? Or what’s your creative process like?
Yes, in fact, one of the things I struggle with the most is keeping up with my brain. I am constantly being bombarded with these “flashing images” I mentioned earlier, to the point that I get overwhelmed and feel like I don’t have enough time. I keep a list on my notes app as well as a physical notebook where I write down ideas, concepts, and thoughts that could potentially be turned into a painting.
I have a few more questions regarding your paintings. And I know you touched on the anonymity part earlier, but the first question is: Your protagonists never show their faces, I’m super curious as to why that is.
I used to paint more faces in the past, but I find that removing facial features from a piece gives it a sense of anonymity, conferring the feeling of a “shared human experience”. It could be me, it could serve as a mirror for the viewer, and the range of possibilities widens. Sometimes a face can give away too much and leaves very little room for interpretation. On my last solo show at Half Gallery in September of 2022, I did paint my exposed face, laying on a patch of grass with a snail slowly making its way across my cheek. The only reason I did that (and I am somewhat sad that it didn’t make it to the press release) is because the painting depicts my individual experiences with sexual assault. Due to its very personal nature, I felt it was imperative for me to show my face, yet I kept my eyes closed to avoid meeting the gaze of the viewer.
The second is: The gloves, hands behind their back, masks, and trenchcoats, are a recurring thing. What’s the story behind that and what do they symbolize?
It’s mostly fetish and a love for mystery. I love hands, I think they are so utilitarian but also a pretty hand is so attractive to me. Gloves are sensual yet they can keep you from feeling textures and that can be very restrictive, which also creates arousal. I also have a fascination for all things leather and latex, drawing a lot of inspiration from vintage fetish magazines like Atomage, Marquis, Bizarre, etc, and the whole universe that people like John Sutcliffe and John Willie created.
What do you hope that we, the observers, take with us after viewing some of your paintings?
Take away from it whatever you want. Just perhaps keep it to yourself! I am not interested in knowing!
Ok so besides painting you also take pictures. Polaroids to be exact. When did you get into that? And why is that one of your preferred mediums of expressing yourself?
I love the immediacy of polaroids. Being able to get a quick result is very satisfying. I love photography but I do not quite see it as a medium on its own (for me) but more of a tool to work with for painting purposes.
I was that one person in the friend group who always carried around a camera. I started off with disposable cameras, then digital… I was so annoying! But I always loved being able to archive memories for me to look at in the future. I am a very nostalgic person by nature and love the sentimental longing I get from staring at a photograph. It can really transport you in time in a way that memories alone can’t.
Having had your work exhibited at several solo and group shows, I gotta ask. Do you ever get nervous or do you have any kind of rituals before exhibitions?
I am a very anxious person so for example, for my last show, I took a valerian pill and drank a Redbull so I wouldn’t be too sleepy. It’s the duality of Noelia Towers. I actually haven’t had that many shows yet and I feel like I just started, so I am curious to see if I get calmer as time goes by. I feel like at some point you stop caring too much, right?
Right. Ok Noelia, we have gotten to the part of the interview, that is a little bit more lighthearted, where I fire off a some questions that I am always super curious about. The first one is:
What motivates and inspires you?
Sometimes spite alone is what keeps me going
How would you describe a perfect day?
A day in which I don’t suffer.
What song are you listening to the most right now?
I do not have a specific song at the moment but I did recently make myself a playlist called Girlboss Folk with artists like Sibylle Baier, Vashti Bunyan, Linda Perhacs, Janis Ian, Margo Guryan and some others, and I find it extremely soothing. It’s on Spotify and I made it Public for anyone to listen. I sent it to my best friend who doesn’t listen to this kind of music at all and she absolutely loved it, so that makes me happy.
What’s your favorite movie(s) and why?
Probably Superbad to be completely honest with you.
Who’s your Favorite artist(s) dead or alive?
I do not have a favorite artist, that would be dishonest of me, there are just so many of them. I love Birgit Jürgenssen, Alex Colville, Robert Overby, Duncan Hannah, Eberhard Havekost, Marlene Dumas, Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, Felix Labisse, Joaquim Sunyer, Ramon Casas, Artemisia Gentileschi, Felix Vallotton, Raphael Soyer, John Currin, Paula rego, Kerry James Marshall, Alex Katz, Francis Bacon, Philip Pearlstein, Lucian Freud, Wyeth, Domenico Gnoli, Giorgio de Chirico, Magritte, Frida Kahlo, Eva Hesse, Ana Mendieta, Meret Oppenheim, Charles Ray, Michael Borremans, Francesca Woodman, Hannah Wilke, Robert Mapplethorpe, Man Ray, Nobuyoshi Araki, Kohei Yoshiyuki, Hajime Sorayama, Judith Eisler, Johannes Kahrs, Catherine Murphy, Richter, Janine Antoni, Nigel Van Wieck, Michael St. John, Monsieur Zohore, Agata Slowak, Alexandra Waliszewska, Ulala Imai, the list really goes on and on and on and on. I love art!
Images courtesy of Noelia, de boer gallery LA and Jacob Philip