Pancho holds an M.F.A. in Sculptural Ceramics from San Francisco State University, and his BA degree from Santa Clara University. He has exhibited extensively in the San Francisco Bay Area and nationally at universities, private galleries and civic spaces. His work is part of the permanent collection of the Crocker Museum of Art in Sacramento CA, the Autry Museum in Los Angeles CA, the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara, CA, the University of San Francisco and Santa Clara University. He has been featured in Ceramics Monthly and numerous publications including, "The Ceramic Design Book", "Extruded Ceramics" and “500 Ceramic Sculptures.” He has taught courses at San Francisco State University, West Valley College and is currently a Senior Lecturer at Santa Clara University where he has been teaching since 1999.
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Excavations and Interpretations
by: Lindsey W. Kouvaris
The notion of a visual culture—pictures and symbols serving as modes of meaningful communication—reaches deep into history, as far back as humankind itself. Before language could be expressed through text, stories were told through images. Following the development of written language, visual communication continued to thrive. Pictures were used to enhance the written word and, in some cases, to supplant it. Initially, only the elite could read; images remained essential, conveying messages when words could not.
Even today our ability to understand images precedes our capacity to read. As children, our first exposure to reading is through picture books that contain few to no words. In this way we begin to develop visual literacy, learning that specific symbols stand for specific things. As we grow we become increasingly adept at decoding images; this is perhaps even truer today than ever before.
With advancements in technology and our increasing reliance on the web, email, and social media, we are inundated with visual content. Our use of the written word dwindles as the power of images grows. With applications like Instagram and Snapchat, we are able to more quickly and efficiently exchange ideas and stories through pictures. As a result, our visual fluency is becoming more complex, refined, and universal.
It is an interest in this universality of visual language, a fascination with our human ability to assign meaning to symbols, which lies at the heart of Francisco (Pancho) Jiménez’s work. While his vocabulary has changed throughout his more than twenty year career, his focus remains the same. Jiménez explores how meaning is conveyed by juxtaposing and recontextualizing recognizable forms to uncover their universal significance.
Born in New York City and raised in Santa Clara, California, Pancho Jiménez began working with clay at a young age. Self-described as a good student but not a great one, Jiménez found expressive currency in art-making. He was able to explore his ideas more successfully through sculpture than through more traditional academic subjects. Driven by the creative possibilities of making art, Jiménez studied Studio Art and History at Santa Clara University, where he earned a B.A. in 1993. Four years later, he graduated from San Francisco State University with an M.F.A. Since 1999 Jiménez has taught ceramics at Santa Clara University, in addition to various other appointments around the Bay Area.
With a background in both art and history, Jiménez maintains a keen awareness of his artistic influences, citing the ancient ruins of Mesoamerican art and architecture as key sources of inspiration. Indeed, his early work unquestionably recalls the richly textured, carved surfaces of these ancient structures. Vacillating in scale from smaller, tabletop pieces to large monolithic sculptures, his work from this period utilizes a largely geometric vocabulary reminiscent of the densely patterned surfaces commonly used by these ancient cultures. The artist attributes his interest in geometry to the process of learning to draw. As children, we begin our mark-making with crude lines that morph into simple shapes—circles, triangles, and squares—and gradually become more complex. For Jiménez, these shapes form a basic visual language that is both timeless and universal, a language that is evident in the ruins of ancient cultures yet still resonates today.
Capitalizing on the versatility of these timeless forms, Jiménez spent more than ten years creating sculptures with richly adorned surfaces. His process was reductive rather than additive. Using slabs to construct basic shapes, he methodically carved away the surfaces, sometimes dwelling on symmetry, other times working freely and organically. In pieces such as Cara y Cara (2012), the artist imbues the work with visual tension by juxtaposing smooth, unadulterated planes with richly textured surfaces. Viewers are left wanting more and yet intensely satisfied by the inclusion of sections of unmarred clay.
For Jiménez, the use of clay is both inconsequential and unquestionably vital to the work. Frequently associated with functional objects like cups and vessels, clay is often considered a form of craft. Though Jiménez flirted with functionality in his earliest creations, the notion of utility is decidedly absent in the majority of his work. Jiménez’s choice of medium is driven not by the potential for functionality but by the properties of the material itself. Clay is both malleable and versatile; it is additive and reductive. And, most importantly, in the words of the artist, “it is honest.” Though frequently shown alongside other clay artists, Jiménez’s work is more aptly defined as sculpture.
While many of his pieces live comfortably on a tabletop or pedestal, Jiménez periodically pushed the boundaries of his creative process by working in more monumental scale. Towering more than five feet in the air, pieces like Growth 2004 and Rise 2004 confront the viewer head-on with their elegant, sinuous curves. Like his smaller sculptures, these works often combine richly textured elements with pristine, untouched swathes of clay. Over time, the artist’s dedication to excavating the surfaces of his pieces took its toll, resulting in the unfortunate development of a repetitive motion injury. Requiring surgery to repair, the injury compelled Jiménez to stop using the reductive process that had defined his art up until that point. Instead, he developed an alternate method of working and in doing so unearthed a new vocabulary of forms.
Shifting to an additive rather than reductive process, Jiménez began creating impressions from familiar objects like childhood toys and tools and started to repurpose kitsch ceramic molds in his work. Acquired through resale sites like Craigslist and eBay, the molds were originally used to make decorative items such as figurines, tchotchkes, and holiday decorations. Jiménez’s decision to utilize these items is surprising, a seeming departure from his previous artistic style. Yet despite this shift, Jiménez’s latest work maintains palpable connections to his earlier creations.
Previously driven by his fascination with symbols derived from the ancient past, Jiménez now looks to the contemporary world for inspiration. Once drawn to the tangible remnants of ancient cultures—art, artifacts, and architecture—Jiménez now investigates the illusiveness of dreams and memories, how the meanings of symbols can shift or fade over time.
The transition in Jiménez’s work begins with a series of abstract busts, hand-sculpted or built from an assemblage of geometric forms. Some life-sized, some shaped into towering columns, Jiménez’s busts from this period seem conflicted, struggling to grasp an identity separate from his previous work. Different yet linked to the past.
As his new visual language matures and Jiménez’s interest in contemporary culture expands, his work develops a rich and relevant focus. The kitschy ceramic molds become vehicles for contemplation and reflection. Adhered together in unlikely combinations, the molded forms compose shapes ranging from benign structures like wall tiles and cubes to pointed forms such as grenades and guns. Many embody the familiar tension between textured surface and smooth finish that characterizes his earlier carved pieces. Yet, there is an eerie and disturbing quality to the new work. It is enticing, demanding close observation and appreciation.
Often the molded forms are at odds with the sinister character of the work. Children’s faces, once belonging to cherubs or angels, adorn the sides of Grenade (2016). Feathered birds and bunnies take on the shape of a gun in Animals (2015). In other cases, it is the juxtaposition of molded figurines that lends the work its suggestive qualities. Divining (2015) brings together skeletons, musical instruments, and children’s toys into an otherwise benevolent form. Pandora’s Box (2015) is nothing but a harmless cube without its pointed title and eerie combination of busts, dolls, pumpkins, and masks.
The combinations of images may seem haphazard until we consider the nature of memory, which alternately advances and recedes, shifts and changes over time. As viewers we are compelled to imbue these works with our own personal stories, bringing our thoughts, emotions, and histories to the experience. What to me appears unnerving may to someone else be nostalgic, reminiscent of smiling cherubs perched on a mantle or a childhood menagerie composed of ceramic animals. For Jiménez, teasing out this type of personal connection enriches the work, attributing both to its mystery and its universality.
Like the rest of us, Jiménez is not immune to the challenges of our contemporary world. Current issues manifest in his work in surprisingly pointed ways. Until recently Jiménez’s main interest was in capturing the mystery, the “eternal presence” of ancient art forms. Now a handful of pieces, created over the last year, reveal loaded iconography aimed at dissecting the current state of the world. Pointed titles in some pieces help us discern the artist’s train of thought—ceramic guns labeled Animals, Children, and Men. But even these descriptors are not enough to fully reveal his intent. Is it a commentary? A reflection? A reference to a specific event? Those elements of the narrative are left to the viewer.
Works such as Missile, Grenade, and Bullets (all 2016) bear more generic titles, but they carry no less impact than their pointed counterparts. Formed into iconic symbols embellished with human faces, there is no mistaking the message behind these works. Like the series of guns referenced above, these pieces call stark attention to the inevitable loss of human life that results from the use of these weapons. Cast from commercial molds, the faces adorning these pieces are non-specific. They represent no one in particular, yet suggest that anyone could become a victim.
In his most recent series, which is loosely based on colossal Olmec heads, Jiménez begins to grapple more deliberately with the individual—or, rather, the archetype of the individual. Still maintaining some sense of the universality that has characterized his work from the beginning, Jiménez’s Biographies do not describe actual people. Rather they present imagined individuals who have been affected by a series of fictional circumstances. In a sense they are portraits representing anonymous people—stories, or elements of stories, that could apply to me, you, your neighbor, or a stranger on the street. As portraits, they do not present human likenesses. Indeed, Jiménez’s busts are featureless save for the adornment of hair or a headdress. Yet, with an expanded definition of portraiture, one that encompasses the possibility that a portrait does not need to include facial features in order to convey likeness, we begin to understand the thinking behind Jiménez’s Biographies.
Our features are unquestionably an important part of how we present ourselves to the world, but so too are the choices we make with regard to bodily adornment—clothing, piercings, tattoos, or hair. Those who have struggled with the challenge of having hair that is different than desired—too thin, too thick, too curly, too straight—will no doubt understand the expressive possibilities of hair. Hair can be worn like a mask, helping present a chosen façade to the world; it can become an enhancement, making us feel more powerful, more beautiful; it can be practical, clipped short or pulled back for a certain job or task; it can be decorative, dyed bright colors or styled eccentrically to draw attention. Our hair changes over our lifetime, creating a record, or as Jiménez might argue, a biography, of our lives.
When considered in this context, works like Mohawk, Hipster, Beehive, and Pigtails (all 2016) are insightful representations. Through the careful coiffing of ceramic hairstyles, Jiménez begins to develop stories. These stories are enhanced through the inclusion of details born from commercial clay molds. Each element becomes like a puzzle piece, providing a clue to the imagined past of this fictional character. We ask ourselves: What type of individual wears a Mohawk? What might his or her story be? Why pigtails? Is it an adult or a child? How does the story change? What clues can we glean from the molded forms?
Also included in this series are faceless busts adorned with elaborate headdresses. Reminiscent of ancient kings and queens, these figures are stately, proudly wearing their extravagant headgear. All titled Headdress (2016), the works weave together past and present by combining contemporary imagery with ancient-inspired forms. Designed with perfect symmetry, the headdresses are worn like tangible records of life’s experiences. Each element seemingly represents a specific memory, event, or emotion, borne like a weight and literally giving shape to the person below.
The character of Jiménez’s work has changed significantly over the last seven years. Unable to continue working as he did during the first half of his career, the artist discovered a new path. On the surface, the avenue he has taken may seem like a departure from what came before. His interest in ancient art forms is less evident, hovering just under the surface, revealed eloquently in pieces like Headdress (2016) and all but absent in pieces like Rising (2015) or Facet (2016). Yet, consistent through everything is his fascination with the ways in which we assign meaning, share stories, and convey thoughts. Each piece is an excavation of the past in an effort to reveal something new about the present.
About the Author
Lindsey W. Kouvaris is an independent curator who lives and works in San Jose. She has spent nearly fifteen years working with contemporary artists at notable South Bay institutions including the San Jose Museum of Art, Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga and, most recently, the de Saisset Museum at Santa Clara University. She holds a B.A. in Art History from Santa Clara University and an M.A. from Southern Methodist University. In addition to her work with contemporary artists, Kouvaris maintains a secondary interest in the art and history of California. She is the author of Moving Forward: Santa Clara’s Story of Transformation, the first iBooks textbook to highlight the history of one of California’s historic missions. In addition, she has contributed essays to publications including Brian Wall: Squaring the Circle, FACE: Portraits by Valentin Popov (expected in 2017), and Selections: The San Jose Museum of Art Permanent Collection.
New Exhibition, New Art & Art History Building: A Look at Pancho Jimenez’s New Work
Story by Maria Judnick
On Saturday October 22 from 11 am to 3 pm, Santa Clara University invites the community to celebrate the unveiling of a new “Arts District” beginning with the new Edward M. Dowd Art and Art History building. The festivities include highlights from the humanities: Music, Theatre, Studio Art, Dance, Art History, Film, Literary Arts, de Saisset Museum, and SCU Presents.
Art aficionados will particularly appreciate the new display space in the Art and Art History Building, a significant upgrade from the previous campus gallery. One of the artists, of course, whose works are on display is that of long-time faculty member Senior Lecturer Francisco “Pancho” Jimenez.
But, for Jimenez, there’s more to celebrate this Fall than the new artistic hub on campus. His solo exhibition “Excavations and Interpretations” at the Triton Museum of Art (closing on October 30), has been hugely successful. Three of his pieces sold just at the opening artist reception and will now be featured in the permanent collections at the Crocker Art Museum, the Autry Museum of the American West, and the Triton, a feat head curator Preston Metcalf has not seen in the last thirty-five years.
The news is especially welcome as Jimenez has been reinventing his work due to a surgery on his right arm to repair several decades’ worth of damage. (He previously carved elaborate, large-scale clay creations.) Jimenez reflected, “I woke up from my surgery and almost immediately I had to ask myself, ‘What do I do now? Why am I doing it [my art]? What am I trying to say with it?” For Jimenez, clay is an ancient art form and an authentic, honest way to explore his passion for Pre Colombian and Mesoamerican art. Clay is also a way of capturing the past to reflect on the present and future.
As Jimenez recovered, he became interested in plaster molds for clay. The molds – often free on Craigslist or Ebay – reflected their time periods. The molds from the late 60s to early 70s were utilitarian objects while the molds from the late 70s to early 90s were often commercial, hyper-realistic tchotchkes like the Smurfs or even E.T. “All these forms caused me to reminisce,” Jimenez explained, “they felt familiar in a way, they sparked a meaning, an experience, a sense of the past, and of dreams.” In melting and combining these forms, Jimenez felt that while he was using a new language or vocabulary in the clay, the simple shapes in which they were embedded reflected his original passion for ancient art.
Each of the series in the Triton exhibition reflect how Jimenez embeds these shapes into the figures and faces of his work to reflect the experiences of his often imagined subjects. Viewers will likely be most moved by the “Weapons” series. Jimenez revealed, “I made this collection while listening to NPR and the news – there was so much talk of Syria, civil wars, shootings. So, I wondered: how can the people involved be more embedded in the conversation of these events?” The result are pieces like “Children” and “Men” – two clay handguns embedded with molds directly related to those Jimenez sees as the most common victims of violence: young men and innocent bystanders, especially children.
For now, Jimenez is “following the work” as he explores the continued use of these molds. Happily, the new space at SCU will enhance his practice. “Yes, it’s an aesthetically beautiful space, but it’s also more functionally conducive. [...] All the department artists will be working when we’re there – inevitably, it will produce an exchange. There’s a real sense of place when the two departments [of Art and Art History] are together,” Jimenez said. “The new gallery space will also help raise our profile on campus, make it more of a destination.”
Jimenez also hopes that students recognize the value and place of artistic expression in their lives. “I tell students that the arts are a way to think creatively – we tap into critical thinking and give them the skills to look at problems in a new manner. We can then understand how the world communicates – especially visually.”
Photos by: R.R. JONES