Sampson’s signature style is a soft, classic realism that has a kinship to the Old Masters, with lots of umbers and ochres lending the paintings a sense of dark mystery, like a Rembrandt. But this traditional mood is broken by the preposterous, or at least unlikely, subjects that he addresses — and this is where the “magic” part of magic realism comes in. His depictions might be found in the clearing of a deep wood, springing up around a curve, or at some incomprehensible event.
A classic example is “Waiting for a Train,” a monumental landscape. Standing out from the surrounding woodlands, a large tree rises on the right side, shading the scene unfolding beneath it. The bright-blue skies are glimpsed up on the left. Gathered under the tree, presumably waiting for the “train” in the title (though there’s no indication that a train could possibly penetrate the forest) is an unlikely cast of characters. Those familiar with Sampson’s oeuvre will recognize most of these figures as part of the retinue of the artist’s personal icons. The most obvious is the sad clown: a French stock character, Pierrot, who seems weary in his depiction in this painting’s foreground. His head is bent, making his white, pointed hat an important aspect of the formal composition. Other signature Sampson symbols among the assembled would-be travelers include an elephant, a lion, a bear, a pelican, a giraffe and a child, among other creatures great and small. There’s a storybook quality to the paintings, which almost seem like illustrations for an oddball children’s book. The show includes an acrylic-on-paper study for "Waiting for a Train"; though much smaller, it has all the power of the large, finished version.
Considering how densely Sampson populates his paintings with figural or other items, you might expect him to take a sketchy approach to the pictorial elements, but you’d be wrong. Instead, his brushmarks are as crowded as his compositions, producing surfaces that are active and rough, and thus expressionistic.
Though he’s been at it for nearly seventy years, Sampson's still got it.
The Sampson show has been extended through December 15 at Sandra Phillips Gallery, 47 West 11th Avenue. For more information, call 303-931-2991 or go to thesandraphillipsgallery.com.