Review by Mary Bentz Gilkerson of Jeff Donovan’s Retrospective

Exhibit Showcases Donovan’s Organic Evolution

A review of Jeff Donovan: Three Decades/Twenty Years, on view at Gallery 80808 through Jan. 19.


An artist’s career rarely develops in a straight line. There are usually digressions along the way, whether in style, subject or media. But Jeff Donovan’s work over the last 30 years has progressed in a remarkably consistent way, despite an interlude of almost 10 years when he made very little art at all.

Wim Roefs of if ART Gallery has produced a mid-career retrospective of Donovan’s work, Jeff Donovan: Three Decades/Twenty Years, on view at Gallery 80808. (Full disclosure: This reviewer’s own art work is also represented by if ART Gallery.) Roefs has not organized the exhibit in the traditional chronological overview, but instead has grouped work thematically and aesthetically. This makes it clear that Donovan has had an ongoing dialogue with his own work, organically integrating and synthesizing the past with the present.

Born in Milford, Del., in 1957, Donovan grew up all over the globe because his father was in the Air Force. After finishing high school in Delaware, he went on to Ringling School of Art in Florida where he stayed for two years.

Donovan considers Reclining Figure, created around 1977-‘78 after he left Ringling, his first successful painting. Between then and 1984, he was an active participant in the Columbia art scene. These early works are more reflective of the figurative work of the artists from the School of London such as Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud than the cool and cerebral work of minimalism and conceptual art that was dominant in the United States at the time.

In the mid-‘80s, life intervened with the birth of Donovan’s daughter, his divorce and a diagnosis of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder. While he was not painting after 1984, he was doodling on all kinds of surfaces and banking ideas for the future. They might not have been formal sketchbook drawings, but they were important enough that he saved them.

Study for the Friar with the Plywood Collar Goes Boating, done in ballpoint pen on a paper towel, is a composition that he has since explored in both paint and clay. But the fundamental themes are present in the initial sketch. Many of his pieces have autobiographical elements, but it is in ones like the Study for the Friar that he makes his most direct social commentary, poking at inflated cultural icons.

His strongest influences are from 19th and early 20th century art. Like the work of Honoré Daumier and Edgar Degas, Study for the Friar uses exaggeration of the figure and dark humor to convey a narrative, even if it is an open-ended one.

In 1994, Donovan returned to making art and the sketch became a fully realized painting. Several elements appear that are recurring themes in his work — boats adrift on limitless seas, disempowered religious figures, clothing that entraps the wearer within a role.

While some of these elements are present in his early work, his paint application and surface treatment become fully developed during this time. There is more richness to his layering of color and marks than in pieces like John, John, the Idiot Cowboy from 1979.

In 2004, Donovan began making clay sculptures. The new medium has become a vehicle for exploring these themes in three-dimensional form. But The Friar (2005) is not just a sculptural version of the earlier painting. It is a much quieter, more contemplative piece. The friar’s head is still weighed down by the enormous sheet of plywood, but his figure is more upright and solid in the way that it bears the weight.

In many ways, the irony has left the work. And that is true of most of Donovan’s recent work. He still uses humor, but it is gentler, less cutting. Viewers can trace these developments themselves through Jan. 19 when the exhibit will close with a reception and presentation of the retrospective catalog.

Three Decades is on display at Gallery 80808 through Jan. 19.
Gallery 80808 is at 808 Lady St.; call 252-6134 or visit for more information.

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