Pop artist Jack Jensen doesn't want anyone kissing his ass, although he's likely to tell folks to plant one on his posterior anyway.
"It's a punk attitude," shrugs the 49-year-old, a grin hung beneath black-rimmed glasses and the brown pompadour he's sported for decades. "I preach healthy anarchy."
And his platform for revolution just got bigger. Earlier this month, Jensen moved Mutiny Now, his gallery/bookstore/coffee shop up the funky block, from its tiny storefront into the ramshackle Ichabod's, a fixture at 2 South Broadway for nearly thirteen years. Ichabod's owner, Kathy Gomendi, whom Jensen describes as a pioneer, decided to close her book shop to spend more time with her family. Jensen, who worked for nine years at the establishment named after the bookish character Ichabod Crane, says he will continue to honor Gomendi's independent spirit -- and cheap prices. A cup of espresso still goes for $1.20, and a used paperback is a quarter. Of course, there have been some modifications: Vinyl jumped to $5 per album (even the Kinks' Low Budget) and is located in the front of the store, tucked neatly in a bin; there's a new floor for the coffee bar; and some bookshelves have been winnowed. But the biggest change is the visual rat-a-tat-tat generated by Jensen's signature paintings.
Appearing on the walls and in the windows are images of skulls, singers and scantily clad women with guns, all done on Masonite boards. They're depicted with slashing lines in bright yellows, oranges and blues, and often juxtaposed with phrases such as "Who's making the rules anyway?" and "Dang, I forgot to get a job." The influences of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, as well as rockers Iggy Pop and the New York Dolls, are clear. Over the years, hundreds of the paintings have been sold, some reaching Tokyo, Berlin and Budapest. "I guess I'm world-famous," Jensen says.
When his works do find their way into the world, truth is often stranger than fiction. One of his pictures was at the neighboring Cherry Pit when the building burned last spring. Fire gutted the area, but his creation -- of a man smoking a cigarette and emblazoned with the caption "I won't be the one who's going to suffer" -- remained untouched. Any smoke residue will only add to its value.
Despite the popularity of his work, not everyone likes Jensen, a fact he cheerfully acknowledges.
"I'm the hated artist," he says, noting that other painters have urged him to raise his prices from the current $50 to $125 because his inexpensive offerings make them look bad. "I don't paint with my wallet in mind. I'd rather sell ten paintings to ten people for fifty bucks each than sell one for $500. I can make it up in volume."
It takes him no more than two hours to pound out a piece in his studio. He scribbles down things he hears and works the lines into his output. For example, when a boy and his dad came into the store, Jensen heard the man answer a question about his haircut by saying, "It takes a rocker to wear a pompadour." That became a signature line.
The rocker has a bit of a corporate edge, though, too, inserting a trademark emblem on each piece. "Too many people come in with a digital camera and take a picture," he says. "If someone copies it -- a phrase or a color -- I let them know. I keep records, and I want the credit due me. People rip things off. There's a lot of it happening in Denver. There's so little creativity here. A show comes to the Denver Art Museum, and then everybody paints like Monet.
"It's not always fun to do new work, because the new stuff isn't always received that well," he continues. "But I'm in the studio seven days a week. Don't tell me that what you're showing is new work if you painted it in 1998. Are you going to keep showing it until it sells?"
Not surprisingly, the anarch-artist doesn't put much stock in establishment opinions. He recently hung a work containing the phrase "I don't give a fuck about your review." It wasn't intended as an insult -- or, at least, not primarily one. "Sometimes you have to use words like that to make a point," he says. "It's not about being illiterate."
This direct approach is a strength, he believes. "You either get it or you don't. There's no hidden meaning," he says. "If you don't get it, you never will. Not one individual targeted. Everyone's fair game. That's the beauty of it. I never have a dry spell."
This rebel with a paintbrush moved to Denver in 1973 from suburban Waukegan, Illinois, where his parents named him for native son and comic Jack Benny. A self-admitted troublemaker in school, he pulled out of a nosedive to earn straight A's after he realized that the Vietnam War just might have his number if he didn't stay in school. ("People today have no idea how close they are to that," he interjects.) Things went well for a while as he first studied silk-screening and jewelry-making at Arapahoe Community College, then art at Metro State. But something went awry, and he and fellow artist Phil Bender were rejected for their senior show in 1979.
"They didn't like the content," he says. "Mine was a 3-D plastic image of Johnny Rotten, with fluorescent colors." Feeling misjudged, he and Bender took their outcast creativity to the flea market, beginning one part of Jensen's mission: "To show work no one else would. I don't go out of my way to shock. Sometimes it's just street art. It's not necessarily political, like about Washington, D.C."
His work hasn't really changed since his flea market days. He still means to provoke reactions -- his most recent effort through a show titled You Are Retarded, which included a work adorned with the phrase "You have shit for brains, and that's giving you more credit than you deserve."
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"It had nothing to do with anyone being retarded," Jensen explains. Instead, the concept was an attempt to challenge the audience -- even people who were sympathetic or were already fans -- often employing large doses of sarcasm. "Everyone deserves some," he proclaims. "People have gotten too calm, too passive, accepting whatever crap is thrown at them in music, art and film. Dare to be different; don't dare to be dull."
Whether or not that message is too daring, he finds that an increasing number of young customers are coming into the store. "It's refreshing for them to hear an alternative view, something they're not getting on TV or in school. I'm giving them an introduction into art or music they might not have known about."
He's teaching life lessons right on Broadway -- "a window on the best circus in the world" -- from where he can continue to observe. To agitate. To paint. "As long as I can hold a paintbrush," he says, then corrects himself. "Nah. I'd find another way to sling paint." And insults.