Byline: Paul Young

LOS ANGELES — It started with a tip from a friend: Emporio Armani is sponsoring a traveling photography show in partnership with Gen Art, the nonprofit organization that supports emerging talent. On a whim, Michael Jensen, a 39-year-old artist based in New York, forwarded a sheet of slides.
Flash to Thursday night: Jensen was in town for the opening of “Perspectives,” the exhibition he shares with two other photographers — Michele Asselin and Matthew Tischler — at the Emporio Armani store in Beverly Hills. From there, he’s running off again, this time to San Francisco for another opening, and then to Hawaii for yet another.
“It’s all happening so quickly that it’s kind of weird,” he confesses. “But I’m totally thrilled to be here.”
Not that he should have been surprised. Despite his amateur status, Jensen has managed to gain some impressive art world credentials in recent years. He has placed his work in nearly 100 private collections around the world, gained a handful of celebrity clients (including Lisa Ling) and has been in several significant group shows — all without the help of a gallerist.
Yet the Armani exhibit could prove to be the most important step in his budding career. “Perspectives” began in New York on Feb. 15 and is on its fifth stop. The show leaves town Monday for the Emporio Armani in San Francisco.
Jensen’s work is anything but conventional, at least not by photographic terms. He places images into a larger framework of brushed aluminum, layers of plastic and random splashes of pigment.
“I initially began as a painter,” he says. “And I always saw these pieces as paintings, really. I guess you could call me a materialist, because I’m very interested in the way certain materials play off each other and create new meanings. I’m not interested in sending a specific, blatant message, however, or making political statements.”
But his work might be more suggestive than he cares to admit. That he literally “entombs” his natural landscapes in such hard-edged, man-made materials as brushed aluminum and resin could be a not-so-subtle commentary on man’s callous view of nature. Yet Jensen prefers to see his designs in more aesthetic terms.
“One of the essential characteristics of beauty is that it’s unobtainable. It’s sort of mercurial and ephemeral. So there’s a kind of melancholy attached to things that are truly beautiful.”
The middle child of three, Jensen initially dreamed of becoming a musician and spent much of his adolescence studying classical piano. After enrolling at Canyon College, he found himself torn between his love of music and the lure of literature. A trip abroad, however, led to the visual arts.
“I can’t really explain what happened,” he says, “but I was doing a lot of research into the relationship of poetry to painting at the time, in particular the poetry of Wallace Stevens, and I suddenly realized, ‘That’s it — that’s what I want to do: I want to be an artist.”‘
Gen Art proposed the idea to transform every Emporio Armani store into a temporary art gallery, after having mounted a successful “test run” at the New York store last spring. But deciding on art works proved to be a slightly trickier affair.
“Basically, the work needed to be fresh and exciting, representative of the cutting edge in the art world, and be easily transportable,” says Adam Walden, managing director of Gen Art’s New York office. “Photography was the natural choice. But we didn’t want portrait or fashion photography, since Armani has been associated with that for years.”
Emporio Armani will not profit from the works directly — prospective clients must contact artists on their own, outside the store itself — yet the fashion house will undoubtedly capitalize on the show’s art world demographics.
“Everyone is aware of how movies and fashion have worked together over the years,” says Robert Triefus, vice president of worldwide communications for Armani. “And now art is crossing over in the same way — not just in America, but around the world. And we believe that those interested in Emporio Armani, both as a brand and a lifestyle, are also very interested in art as well. So it only makes sense that we would bring the two together.”