Revealing the Layers of ‘Snow Hymn’: The Experimental Processes of David Donovan Jensen

Artists, Bicycle Fine Art, Feature Article, Original Painting

David Donovan Jensen
Snow Hymn, 2015
Oil on Canvas
Dimensions: 78 x 68 in.
*Currently on view at the New York Design Center, 200 Lexington Ave., 10th Floor, NYC

This painting, entitled Snow Hymn, was created in 2015 by contemporary artist David Donovan Jensen for his Hymn series. He came up with the Hymn title for this series as a result of listening to a large amount of what he affectionately refers to as “crazy old Russian hymns.” David appreciates abstract painting “that have some sort of ‘in’ that invites you into the work,” and has expressed appreciation for Agnes Martin, whose titles he feels act almost as short poems.

A few years ago, he started using a power sander alongside his brushes. A friend of his who operates a welding shop, invited David to set up his studio space there. He was immediately drawn to a power grinder that was in the shop and became interested in the prospect of incorporating it into his process. He found that his work responded well to the tool’s ability to bring the various deeply buried layers to the surface. David has likened it to a “giant leaf rubbing,” whose textures are brought to the surface of the canvas by the sander and act as a recording of his studio.

View of David Donovan Jensen’s Snow Hymn (78 x 68 in.) at the New York Design Center

David, who lives and works in Minneapolis, creates his paintings by applying innumerable layers of acrylic washes, spray paint, and pastel to un-stretched canvas. He has stated that, when he started working on Snow Hymn in 2015, he was worried he had ruined the piece after only a few layers. It was only after he continued pushing and pushing his materials and techniques to their limit that he finally became satisfied with the look of the finished canvas.

Following in the tradition set by artists like Claude Monet and Andy Warhol, David is a painter who is familiar with working in series. His most recent installments in the Hymn series were created partly out of necessity, as his works are composed of dozens of layers that need time to dry after application, and partly from choice, as the drying time allows him to work on many paintings at once. When he is working on one painting, the others from the series are always on display in his studio, a practice that results in a series whose character is both consistent and fully developed.

David Donovan Jensen
Snow Hymn, 2015
(Detail 1 of 2)

In addition to being a painter, David is also an accomplished videographer and has collaborated with artists prominent in the Minneapolis art scene to create music videos, some of which have been featured in Rolling Stone,, Pitchfork and Time Magazine. David approaches painting and videography with the same philosophy, focusing on the individual shots and playing with the same issues of light and beauty present in this piece, entitled ‘Snow Hymn.’

As a result of his process of applying dozens of layers to his canvases, the colors in David’s paintings are complex and nuanced, an aspect of his artwork mirrored in his complicated and abstract compositions. This detail image of Snow Hymn highlights David’s process of working with spray paint, pastels, and acrylic paint, all of which are mixed together to create a color palette and texture that would have been impossible to achieve with a single medium.

It comes as no surprise that one of David’s favorite contemporary artists is Robert Irwin. Irwin’s treatment of and respect for light as a subject matter in its own right is paralleled in David’s own work, which focuses on creating the impression of light. Inspired by the quiet thoughtfulness present in Irwin’s installation work, David’s paintings explore similar issues of light and space in a more tactile medium. His work achieves a cool emotive power reminiscent of Irwin’s sculptures, although crafted with layers upon layers of spray paint and pastel.

David Donovan Jensen
Snow Hymn, 2015
(Detail 2 of 2)

In addition to the piece Snow Hymn featured here, the other paintings in David’s Hymn series include similarly titled works such as Body Hymn and Wave Hymn.  Many of the paintings he had previously created  were of a similar scale, typically a square four feet by four feet. David has said that he likes this size because of its relationship to the viewer’s body, stating that “a body fits nicely in front of the view. It’s a human scale. Snow Hymn starts to get a bit bigger, a little more epic.”  Snow Hymn was one of the first larger paintings David created, and its scale presented him with a unique set of challenges.

While he attempts to plan out a painting before he starts, they usually start to take on a life of their own in a process that David enthusiastically embraces. He has remarked that he will “start it [by] thinking that it’s going to look a certain way, but it never does. It’s a fine line of letting it lead me, and leading it.” When working on a piece, David likes to bring it right up to the edge of being overworked, toeing the line right before his piece becomes too chaotic. However, it is not necessarily a bad thing to overwork a painting;  David has remarked that “if it’s lost, it frees you up. If it’s already lost, there’s nothing to be scared of. If you hold on too tight, you’ll never make anything new.” Regarding Snow Hymn, “I’m glad I took that chance.”

Posted by

Lisa-Thi Beskar, Art Advisor & Curator