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Though it may seem a specialized and even esoteric practice, “serious” gallery-style art is sometimes wrapped up with the men and — more often — women who invented what we like to think of as Ithaca culture. Case in point for this week is Sidney Piburn, the man chiefly responsible for bringing Tibetan Buddhism to Ithaca.

Piburn is also an ambitious abstract painter and (sometimes) sculptor. A 1969 Cornell MFA, the self-effacing artist exhibits irregularly in town. A 2019 show at the Community School of Music and Arts offered a rare opportunity to see his work en masse. 

This month (through Nov. 21), his work is on-view once again: this time at The Gallery at South Hill. A selection of his paintings and figure drawings fills the room in a characteristically stately presentation arranged with the help of gallery director (and fellow abstract painter) Michael Sampson. Most of the work is untitled and undated — a hindrance to those of us who might want to trace the development of this important local artist. 

Piburn is in more ways than one a man of the sixties. As discussed in a gallery handout and in a recent artist’s talk, his influences run the gamut from figurative modernist artists such as Henri Matisse and Nathan Olivera, to “color field” abstractionists like Helen Frankenthaler and Jules Olitski, and more conceptually-oriented figures like Jasper Johns and Robert Morris. (Sympathies for the latter camp are more apparent in his sculpture, which is unfortunately not on public view.) 

His canvases here — acrylic and occasionally oil — are largely in an Abstract Expressionist vein, while the drawings shift between a precise realism and more interpretive approaches. 

One large, upright acrylic piece — dated August 1968 — conveys an even more particular period flavor. As well as recalling classic hard-edge abstractionists such as Josef Albers and Frank Stella, it helps anchor the current show through its unspoken rootedness in personal experience. According to Piburn, as an undergraduate art student at the University of Kansas, he would often visit the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, whose interior design incorporated fragments of classical temple entrances. The pronounced verticality of these spaces left a lasting impression on the young artist — one that continues to inform his work. 

The composition consists of interlocked rectangular column- and beam-like shapes in mostly muted colors: dark green, cyan, olive, purple, brown. An upright of brighter blue seems to pop out from the right edge. It’s difficult to describe such painting — seemingly the polar opposite of Tibetan painting’s elaborate fantasy — without sounding dry. But the piece itself exudes quiet joy.

Hung nearby, a row of five skinny, column-like paintings form a centerpiece for the current show as well as showing-off the painterly lexicon Piburn explores as well in his more conventionally formatted canvases. Central vertical marks evoke cuts or tears. Dense layerings of material are a key to these works as they are to nearly all his paintings here. One particularly striking, blue and orange-toned piece incorporates little flickers of white light as well as patches of black — suggesting drawing as a kind of scaffolding. 

As well as architecture and geometry, nature is a perennial source material for the ambitious abstract painter. Several paintings evoke local waterfall scenery with their striking verticals while others suggest horizontal configurations of land, water and sky.

Figure drawing, often practiced in a communal setting, is a grounding practice for visual artists of diverse stripes. Rendered in ink, charcoal, and graphite, Piburn’s drawings here (most framed) capture the speed and energy of sessions where nude models — most often, women — will hold a pose for five, 10, perhaps 20 minutes before moving on. 

Most engaging are three pieces in which the artist uses heavy ink lines, mid-tone washes, and dry-brushed areas to create expressionist, near-abstract jumbles of limbs and what might be folds of cloth. It is fitting that they are on-show in a gallery that has recently featured the abstracted figure drawing and painting of Michael Sampson and the discombobulated still-life of Jessica Warner.

Although they can be accused of poaching friends and Artist Alley studio renters — Piburn has a space nearby — the Gallery at South Hill has had an enviable lineup of abstract-leaning painting shows since they re-emerged from the pandemic under Sampson’s charge earlier this year. A more artistically diverse roster, including an invitational group show this November/December and exhibits featuring photography and folk-ish art, is upcoming. Still, it is welcome to see work like this in a community where it is so-often underappreciated.

The Gallery at South Hill is located inside “Artist Alley” at the South Hill Business Campus on 950 Danby Road. Regular gallery hours are on Fridays from 5-8 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 12-4 p.m. 

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