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Arts & Culture

Panca's 'El Más Allá' Opens At The New Children's Museum

Detail of Panca's "El Más Allá" installation at The New Children's Museum, which opens to the public on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021.
Kim Valente / Courtesy of The New Children's Museum
Detail of Panca's "El Más Allá" installation at The New Children's Museum, which opens to the public on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021.

A vivid, weird and imaginative installation by 2021 San Diego Art Prize Recipient Panca at The New Children's Museum helps reflect kids' big feelings in a big world.

With such a vast and layered installation, it's hard to decide where to start — until you think like a kid.

Always go straight to the slide.

Children play on the 40-foot slide at the entrance to Panca's installation at The New Children's Museum, which opens to the public Aug. 13, 2021.
Kim Valente / Courtesy of The New Children's Museum
Children play on the 40-foot slide at the entrance to Panca's installation at The New Children's Museum, which opens to the public Aug. 13, 2021.

The 40-foot slide spans the entire length of the central staircase at The New Children's Museum and could serve as a makeshift entry point for the Tijuana-based artist Panca's new installation, part of the museum's artist residency program.

The program has been around since 2014, and since then has featured interactive, play-ready and community-centered works of contemporary art by Wes Bruce, Rizzhel Javier and Tanya Aguiñiga.

RELATED: Panca: ‘Ni De Aquí, Ni De Allá’

When Panca — otherwise known as Paola Villaseñor — was brought in as the 2020 artist in residence, things quickly ground to a halt as the pandemic kept the museum closed. But it was also a time to get inspiration and feedback flowing to and from families, community groups and Panca.

Her work is character-driven, marked by the signature faces on her canvas, mural, installation and street art. And much of the way the faces in "El Más Allá" are built came from conversations with families during the pandemic, where Panca tried to get a sense of how people were coping, according to Megan Dickerson, director of exhibitions at NCM.

"The characters she ultimately finalized are meant to be reflections, manifestations of how people were feeling during the COVID-19 pandemic," Dickerson said.

Pinky and Maslow are characters (and large, climb-in sculptures) from Panca's imagination, part of "El Más Allá" on view beginning Aug. 13, 2021 at The New Children's Museum.
Kim Valente / Courtesy of The New Children's Museum
Pinky and Maslow are characters (and large, climb-in sculptures) from Panca's imagination, part of "El Más Allá" on view beginning Aug. 13, 2021 at The New Children's Museum.

There are several named characters in the work, each with personalities and something to relate to — though the specifics of the mythology of the work will even be known by kids in the exhibit.

Pinky, an anxious thing who copes through art, is manifest primarily in a large crawl-in pink-hued sculpture.

"Pinky is anxious partly because Pinky spends a lot of time thinking about how other people are feeling, and seeing things through other people's perspectives, so Pinky makes art to work through some of these anxieties," Dickerson said while lying down inside Pinky. ("Such a weird interview," she added.)

Maslow is an even bigger blob-like structure coated in expandable foam that kids can play inside. Maslow is named after the psychologist Abraham Maslow, who developed the hierarchy of needs — and the manifestation in Panca's work is also inspired by a Nikki de Saint Phalle work called "Golem."

Panca's "El Más Allá" installation at The New Children's Museum opens to the public Aug. 13, 2021.
Kim Valente / Courtesy of The New Children's Museum
Panca's "El Más Allá" installation at The New Children's Museum opens to the public Aug. 13, 2021.

Panca's imagination is magical and strange, childlike and complicated — while also being approachable and transferrable. One kid's idea of any of these characters may be totally different, Dickerson said. "Your Maslow may have no eyes at all."

"El Más Allá" translates to "the beyond." The idea is for the exhibition to make the kids feel understood wherever they are, but also to transport them to a wild and inventive world.

"It's just weird enough," Dickerson said.

If you can peel your eyes away from the vivid art, there's plenty to build, move around and create, too, with massive foam shapes and blocks that can be constructed into mini dwellings, towers or characters of their own.

Panca worked on the exhibition as soon as she was able to travel to San Diego and dig in. Her art is layered, literally, beginning with a turquoise backdrop that is almost entirely concealed in the finished product, adorned with more vivid colors, patterns and characters. All repeated across the 2,500 square-foot installation.

Paola Villaseñor, known as Panca, is pictured in an undated photo with part of her installation, "El Más Allá," at The New Children's Museum.
Courtesy of The New Children's Museum
Paola Villaseñor, known as Panca, is pictured in an undated photo with part of her installation, "El Más Allá," at The New Children's Museum.

Rooted in street art in Tijuana, Panca's disruptive and expressive works interact with the walls and spaces by bringing them to life, and she was further influenced by nineties cartoons that bordered on the grotesque, like "Ren and Stimpy." Panca is a 2021 recipient of the San Diego Art Prize.

Not only has her "Smile" mural graced the museum's entry bridge with rainbows and gleeful mouths for years, but Panca remembers coming to the museum as a child. In fact, painting the outdoor truck was one of her first ever experiences painting.

It's all part of the big picture for NCM, and part of why Panca's installation has no end date yet. "El Más Allá" will be one of the "anchor" works in the museum for a long time — at least three years but potentially longer.

"I desire to create these convertible spaces that kids can grow up with, and can actually project whatever they're feeling onto it at that moment. For me that's what contemporary art does," Dickerson said.

The museum has been in operation in the current form since 2008, but it first opened in La Jolla in 1983.

Their contemporary art installations are collaborative, connecting artists, families and community groups like Casa Familiar, South Bay Community Services, the San Diego LGBTQ Community Center, the City Heights and Skyline Hills public libraries, Barrio Logan College Institute and the Vista-based Solutions for Change.

It also pairs artists with museum designers and playworkers, who can offer insight on the "playability" of a particular work of art to address whether and how kids may play with something — both ideological and risk-related in nature.

Since reopening this summer after a long pause during COVID-19 restrictions, NCM is currently requiring masks indoors for all visitors over the age of two, and staff.

Panca works on part of "El Más Allá" in an undated photo.
Courtesy of The New Children's Museum
Panca works on part of "El Más Allá" in an undated photo.

"Kids' play has changed," Dickerson noted of the pandemic's impact on children. Some of the museum's visitors have spent more than half their life navigating pandemic restrictions.

But she also hopes that play is the thing that helps children rediscover their relationship to art, each other, the world around them, and themselves.

"Play offers you that opportunity to have some level of control over your own body and behavior, and I think that's kind of what's saving kids these days," Dickerson said.

"El Más Allá" opens Thursday, August 12, 2021 for members and Friday, Aug. 13 for the public.

Everyone has songs they treasure — songs that evoke vivid memories and color different periods of our lives. Sometimes, music ends up shaping who we become. For Paola Villaseñor, better known as the influential border artist Panca, music from both sides of the border has been a lifelong companion whenever she’s painting. Sometimes, lyrics from songs or traces of the flow and melody of music can be found in her final works. Today, we’ve got a story about one of our border region’s most well-known artists, told through the lens of music. About the Show: “Only Here” is about the unexplored subcultures, creativity and struggles at the U.S.-Mexico border. The KPBS podcast tells personal stories from people whose lives are shaped by the tension reverberating around the wall. This is a show for border babies, urban explorers or those who wonder what happens when two cultures are both separated and intertwined. Follow Us: https://www.facebook.com/onlyherepodcast/ https://www.instagram.com/onlyherepodcast/ Support Us: https://www.kpbs.org/donate Give us Feedback: 619-452-0228‬ podcasts@kpbs.org