I’m not the typical artist standing in the corner being weird. I’ll come up to anyone and explain it.
Tulio Flores is two parts of the same self-aware whole. He brings surreal monsters to life in exhibits that combine the cold decay of the city with the earthy grain of Mother Nature. From coffee filters to old wine bottles, what looks like trash to some is a muse for Tulio Flores.
Tulio Flores has been living in San Jose for over 18 years, almost half his life. He’s watched the art scene mature, he’s observed retail return to downtown, and he’s been blissfully aware of a growing fan base for his surreal artwork.
Flipping through his portfolio, people can scan the pages and catch the radiant choice of yellows, reds, greens, and oranges, designed to trigger emotions in its viewers. When focusing on a picture, a viewer might be scared or, just as easily, inspired to tears. Flores marries the opposites of dark monsters and beautiful ethnic adornments through the lens of paint, wood, metal, and other recycled materials.
It was his mother, a Mexican artist, who passed down an inheritance of artistic expression to Flores. Art has helped him work past traumatic events in his early childhood, but it wasn’t until his mid-20s that he decided to ignore all negative opinions and discover a style that, like his own life, does not shy away from confrontation. Since then, Flores has slept with a notebook next to his bed each night because new ideas and inspirations literally jolt him from his sleep. “Life gives me challenges. Instead of hating life or getting angry at everybody, I express it with my art,” says Flores.
Flores’ art is exhibited at The Citadel, and like his previous exhibitions, all the paintings and sculptures from this show, Connected, including the tarp for the canvas of his paintings, are made with 100% recycled materials. “Everything for me is organic, Mother Nature,” he says. Flores admits this exhibition is social commentary on the destruction of the Earth by industrialization, and the dark fantasies of the “Queen,” “Soldier,” and “Birdcage” that jump into 3D existence at The Citadel borrow heavily from his own childhood in Mexico and his personal road to discovery. He doesn’t hide from what the world is today. There is still the softness of Mother Nature seen in the playful color used, but it is twisted with the hard lifelessness of metal he chooses to juxtapose against the earthy and organic.
His sculpture “Soldier” seeks vengeance and attention. The playful cocktail of blacks with bright secondary colors imitates the human circulatory system and adds a frightful layer to the lingering presence of this crusader for Mother Nature. Flores explains that the whip in her right hand is there to lacerate the world that has polluted and used her.
Some pieces are dark veiled by light. Yet others are distinctly hopeful, like “Birdcage.”
The “Birdcage” piece represents a oneness by random events. The colors on the mannequin and Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) drawings on the body symbolize religion, culture, hate, and love. It is all the opinions, beliefs, relationships, and norms that are ingredients for the yin and yang of chaos and unity. Flores simplifies this idea by explaining, “You are one and I am one. Somehow we are all connected. We are connected by so many people, and their voices are inside our heads. Sometimes we keep one connection even when the catalyst is gone. The feathers are the souls. It can be dark, colorful, fun, anything you want. You open the door of the birdcage, and you release the people, relationships, and thoughts that you don’t want in your head.”
The centerpiece of the Connected series is called “Queen” and represents Mother Nature. The face and body are made of recycled foil and clay, which gives the look and feel of a recently exhumed body. For extra effect, there is a fishnet stocking over the face of the “Queen,” clearly showing the audience a victim who has been violated. Still, the monarch here is dressed up with hand embroidery. It took endless hours to weave the red thread into the pipe straps used as the festive gown. Flores takes great care in the details. The roses at the bottom of the dress are actually hundreds of coffee filters that have been dipped in water for a natural saturation that looks like the pink and red hues of roses. One piece like “Queen” can require three weeks to finish. Flores’ work boldly confronts feelings of being judged, feelings of shame, and the epic quest of changing into a new person.
“The artistic mentality is you have to be weird. If you’re not weird, you’re not an artist. […] I stand there with people who come to see my artwork and explain every single little detail to them. I’ll tell them, ‘This represents darkness, negativity, life, this, and that.’ I’m really friendly. I’m not the typical artist standing in the corner being weird. I’ll come up to anyone and explain it to you. I’ll answer any question,” Flores says.
This year is Flores’ busiest yet, with 60 shows for Connected, as well as new work he’s created for Breast Cancer Awareness, which will next be on view in April at Bel Bacio in Little Italy. Flores has at least eight shows every month.
The new exhibition will be a series of ten 4′ by 7′ paintings. Each painting is a single step in the transformation of a woman from a shriveled victim from her battle with breast cancer into a warrior that has fed on her own sufferings to become stronger. He is also trying to incorporate live body painting into the show as extensions of the ten paintings in order to add another dimension for audiences to take in.
There is a recurring theme in Flores’ work: a subject being shamed by outside forces, needing to rise above an internal dilemma in order to be reborn. As Flores stares at photos of the sketches for his new exhibition on his phone, he asks himself, “She reaches a point of no return: will she persist, or will she choose to die? If she chooses to live on, it will be as something new, a warrior. Taking another road, seeing what’s going to happen. Now she’s fighting.”
The fights are real for Tulio Flores. Fighting a history of being told he’s not good enough and dealing with rejection due to his ethnicity. “I went to this gallery that was doing Chicano history. I brought my portfolio. They were like, ‘You’re not Mexican or Chicano enough.’ My art is contemporary, modern art. It wasn’t ethnic enough,” he says. Now, Flores works with galleries that support the blossoming of an artistic community in San Jose. “Everyone can get a chance. The people who are truly interested in doing it, they stay here. If you’re good, you’ll know right away. If you’re not, then you’ll walk away. Because having a show is not easy, man. Creating your own show is not easy. There’s a lot of work involved.”
Written by Charles Becker
Photography by Ana Villafane
This article originally appeared in Issue 6.0 “Discover”