Jan Jensen, born in 1949, was only 16 when he made his debut as an exhibitor. This was in his home town of Fredericia, where his father, who was a more than capable amateur painter, took Jan, from the age of 12, along on Sunday painting outings. Dissatisfied with being limited to water colors and pastels, he secretly painted with his father’s oil paints at home. It wasn’t until the family’s neighbor and friend Major Jacob Ryg Olsen, who later opened a gallery in town, by chance came upon one of these endeavors and as acknowledgement framed it, that Jan was given free access to the oil paints. Inspired by the very different modern paintings in the Ryg Olsen home, Jan dropped the landscape tradition he had grown up with and began to paint a series of huge paintings in an expressive Cobra style.
The exhibition debut in 1966, which was brought about by Ryg Olsen’s son Knud, who also painted, at the exhibition OS 5, was well received by the local newspapers and was followed later by other exhibitions in town and surrounding vicinities. The decisive step was taken with the establishment of FLASH in Odense, where Jan moved after passing, by the skin of his teeth and after failing a couple of times, his A-levels in 1971.
FLASH, which was rooted in the rebellious and provocative spirit of ’68, exhibited frequently until 1972 when the group was temporarily disbanded. Jan characterizes the work from these years thus: “Pictures and sculptures changed radically under American inspiration: psychedelic colors, systematism, and painted in bright synthetic lacquer colors.” There was a radical shift in the summer of 1972 when confronted with photo-realism, and in particular Chuck Close’s huge portraits, at documenta. Here Jan found an ideal for his budding artistic “realism requirements” to painting that he had maintained throughout his activity as a visual artist: “Looking at a painting closely, it mustn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is. Brush strokes of color on a canvas. It should give itself away as cheating. That the brush strokes suggest to the public that they see the whole as, for example, a football stadium, is the wonderful magic of visual art.”
This realization led to what Jan calls his “years of apprenticeship.” Being the child of the rebellion against authority that he was, he chose not to enter the Royal Academy of Art and had to acquire the skills of the profession on his own. A laborious process that he began by painting after slides, but “stubborn and persistent,” he stuck with these photo-realistic pictures that to a large extent found their themes in the family that he had started in 1973. By 1975 he had come up to a standard where he found satisfaction in a painting of his pregnant wife, which was exhibited in the KE (the Fall Exhibition). Several of the paintings from this period possess a political dimension – in a frieze based on a central theme – by representing the violence and horror of existence.
During this period, he published four collections of poetry, a minor novel and had a play performed. These received positive attention, not least because of their linguistic vitality and originality – but later his contributions as a writer have focused on art criticism and art polemics.
1977 marked a new epoch. In part because Jan initiated the revival of FLASH, which displayed very active, conspicuous and - in protest against the dominant “respectability” of art – continuously provocative exhibitions; and in part because he abandoned photo-realism for, at first, a renewed focus on politics. The latter was strongly manifested in four, still photo-realistic, paintings representing postage stamps of the leaders of the Baader-Meinhof gang, which were exhibited just as the drama surrounding them culminated in the fall of 1977; and in works based on another key figure of the drama, the chairman of the West German employers’ association Hanns-Martin Schleyer, who was brutally murdered by the gang, and the assassination of J.F. Kennedy in 1963. The last mentioned retained photo-realistic elements that at the same time concentrate on anything but a realistic statement on the morals of history or the artist.
The following year he was inspired anew. This happened in Düsseldorf when he was dragged to a football match and experienced the “orgiastic reactions” of the spectators. He became absorbed by the anonymous crowds whose “joint ejaculation” with every goal he interpreted against the backdrop of the transformation of the sport into pacifying opium for the people who sat glued to their TV screens around the world. The sports images had a lasting effect on his painting. By reducing each spectator to an anonymous speck in the mass, the motif moved towards pure pointillism. A residency in Amsterdam in the summer of 1980, when the city was ravaged by several violent demonstrations, deepened the experience of the individual as a speck in the whole, which together translated into striking works that aroused appreciative attention and led to several public art commissions.
In the summer of 1982 Jan had a barrier-breaking experience of lasting significance. During a holiday at the coast in Blåvand he experienced an overwhelming shower of shooting stars reflected, so to speak, in the phosphorescence of the water: “My feet became flapping clouds of stars in the sand,” “communication without meaning “ – but with such power that it burst barriers within him. From that moment on the endless cosmic expanses became the sounding board for a large part of his work. A new chapter in painting was initiated. Also instrumental was his clash with “the institutionalizing art mafia” that he saw taking root in the many political art institutions he was seated in, combined with a growing contempt for “quickly painted” art that, beginning with the “Junge Wilde,” conquered the Danish museums and exhibition halls during this period.
This led him on the one hand to a personal need for introspection and on the other hand to making a statement, with FLASH, regarding “Applied Art” – i.e. art that “is seen and used by the public” – in The 12 Fanø Doctrines.
He met the requirements of the latter in a large commissioned public work that he created with Per Kramer for the town hall in Esbjerg. He satisfied his personal need for introspection with a series of “dot pictures” that have become his signature as a visual artist. A significant landmark towards refining the “simultaneous contrast” that is the supporting technique of his painting was his triptych inspired by the assassination of the Swedish prime minister Olof Palme in 1986. Although limiting himself to prime colors, they become widely nuanced in the contrasts created by seductive shifts and dynamics enhanced by the varying sizes of the dots. The technique is used in the Palme paintings to create shadow effects with far more shifts in color than earlier. This coincided with the development of “background lighting” that means that the painting is lifted about 30 centimeters on oblique pieces of wood painted in bright fluorescent colors so that the reflection on the wall becomes a vibrating play of light around the painting like a corona.
The choice of this very demanding art form was linked to his decision to resign from the time consuming political art organizations after several conflicts that made him an avid – and extremely eloquent – critic of the power play that the art scene had become. This did not mean that he retired from extroverted activity – on the contrary he played a prominent role both as exhibition organizer and art critic in the Fyens Stiftstidende and later in the art journal Kunst. He was awarded the culture prize The Ugly Duckling for this activity in 1997.
As exhibition organizer he was the driving force behind the establishment of Denmark’s first collectively run art gallery FLASH. He also participated in the group’s collaboration with LEGO which resulted in the exhibition Homo Futurus. This exhibition received great media coverage and was shown internationally in Germany, Brazil, Ireland and Belgium and elsewhere. In 1985, as a member of the project group behind the establishment of Brandts Klædefabrik in Odense, he was responsible for the exhibition Sportens Spejl (The Mirror of Sport?). Also at Brandts, he organized the prestigious presentation of the South American millionaire Karl P. van Stuijvenberg’s large collection of Cobra works in connection with Odense’s 1000-year jubilee in 1988. He gradually retired from this activity and began concentrating on his own work – his “aristocratic painting” - in his studio in the abandoned dairy in Båring.
In the ‘90s, these paintings took on a humorous character in the forms of hundreds of small and big human-like but also troll-like figures that sail about in his spherical spaces between Here and Eternity. More crucial to his art was the inspiration from a press photo of an empty refugee camp in civil war plagued Yugoslavia. This resulted in the large painting Balkanibal that like an echo of the experience at the beach in Blåvand finds cosmic diversity in the earthly. Bits of clothing as far as the eye can reach, painted with the same inexhaustible patience as the spherical paintings. He has carried this form over into the painting Parasolemio and in other parasol and clothing pictures that, just as his spherical work, are both repetitions of and variations on the theme in question.
Around the time of the millennium, he took the step from constructing relief effects in his paintings to actually making sculptures. Of course, one is tempted to say, using an incredible time and work consuming technique where he glues carved pieces of veneer together and then files and polishes the figure into its final shape. This gives an effect that is impossible to get with solid wood, as it creates softly alternating color interplay depending on the type of wood used. Not only form, but also color is expressed in the sculptures.
His major piece is the sculpture Udviklingen (Evolution), which dynamically summarizes Darwin’s theory of evolution. Like a coiled spring, its spiral form keeps the process going, while increasingly nuanced forms evolve into mammal-like figures before they are transformed via an ape-like creature into the final objective of the work: two humans, man and woman, Adam and Eve. This is not just a brilliant interpretation of the theory. It also contains the inspiring tension that is characteristic of most of his art since the Blåvand experience to both his exuberant and enchantingly wordy universe based partly on scientific materialism and partly on the rebellious spirit of ’68, as well as the cosmic dimension of the spherical universe that is difficult to fit into the former universe. On closer inspection, Evolution contradicts Darwin’s theory. Rather than being pushed forward like passive products, the human couple powerfully draws itself out of the spiral of the ages.
Translated by Meg Larrabee Sønderlund