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ITHACA, NY -- Of the various artistic activities interrupted by the recent pandemic, figure drawing is lesser known. Although painters and other visual artists commonly create alone in their studios, working from the live model is often a group activity. Beyond the well-funded professionalism of degree-granting art programs and professional portraiture, drawing and other work from the figure is often a do-it-yourself affair. Negotiating models, poses, fees, and locations founds a culture unto itself. Rather than a means of completing finished work, experimentation is often – if not always – the focus.?

Although known locally as an abstract expressionist painter, Michael Sampson’s work of the past half-decade has been haunted by memories of the figure. An active part of the local figure drawing community, Sampson generates the “imagery” for his richly multi-hued, dynamic oils out of direct observation. Working from — or indeed, with — dancers and other performers as well as traditional nude models, Sampson creates quick drawings meant to capture something of a direct presence. From these he edits and selects carefully, resulting in paintings that are clearly abstract but tied to their origins.?

Sampson is also in charge at The Gallery at South Hill, located in Artist Alley in the South Hill Business Campus. Their early summer exhibition features a selection of his oils on paper and canvas. Up through July 31, this is their second since resuming new shows this spring.?

His style is consistent, perhaps to a fault. Recalling stained glass, mosaics, or jigsaw puzzles, the “skeleton” of his paintings is an irregular net of thick black lines that divides his surfaces. Carefully shaped — almost sculpted — these borders have a stiffened, deliberate quality that appears at a remove from their origins in “gesture” drawing. In-between, he fills in areas of painterly but solidified, flattened color: Mondrian-esque primaries plus white; saturated greens, purples, pinks, and oranges; subdued evocations of flesh. It’s a lot to handle and one senses a struggle in even the best of these pieces.?

Lines in drawing and painting — particularly of a generally expressionistic or “painterly” sort — can have a double purpose. On one hand, lines can serve as contours, individuating separate forms— whether familiar objects and figures or, as prominently in Sampson’s work, abstract shapes. On the other hand, lines can take on a life of their own, pulling the gaze in knots and capturing movement and dynamism.?

Sampson’s black lines here have a static, contour quality. In an apparent effort to introduce — or reintroduce — a greater sense of fluidity, he goes over some of them in white or pale colored oil stick, lending his borders a chalky, drawn over quality.?

As the artist writes in his statement, “I want the viewer to engage in the search for the figure.” In many pieces here, the figure is easy to spot — or at least it seems so.?

“Jana, Everson March, Seated,” an upright oil on paper piece mounted to hardboard, is typical of these less apparently abstract works. Limned in steady black lines — sometimes snaking, sometimes more angular — a distinctly feminine, perhaps maternal figure occupies what reads clearly as a background space. She leans down, leftward, embracing what one imagines to be an infant. Like Picasso or the more abstract works of Matisse (though distinct in style), Sampson teases a familiar iconography while engaging in a freeplay of lines and colors.?

“Gretchen,” a squarish canvas from Sampson’s “Handbalancer” series, pushes the overdrawing to an extreme. It’s a particularly vibrant piece. The black bones become conduits, rivers of oil stick white and intense, brushy saturated red. The whole thing has a scumbled, worked-over quality: writhing leaf-like facets of deep blue, chalky white, beige, cyan, pale pink, and yellow. I was hard pressed to find the intended figurative reference. But the whole piece twists and shouts.?

Regardless of the difficulties here, this is ambitious painting. It is good to see a local gallery with a strong commitment to exhibiting what serious local artists can do with the medium. Sampson’s show comes on the heels of an even more striking exhibition by Andrew Paine, a textural, visceral abstractionist. Upcoming features later this year include Sidney Piburn, rooted in mid-century formalism, and Jessica Warner, who has been performing a daring re-invention of still life.?

The Gallery at South Hill is located in Artist’s Alley at 950 Danby Rd. in the South Hill Business Center. Gallery hours are Friday, 5-8 p.m. and Saturday, 3-7 p.m.

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