Sho Shibuya doesn’t see himself as an artist. That’ll come later. First, he’s somebody who works, just like a barber, or like the mechanic down at your local car garage. It just so happens that his work has been compared to Mark Rothko and ‘graced’ the cover of The New York Times.
In the piece titled ‘CALIFORNIA’, Shibuya created a very graphic abstract image on the paper’s front cover, a powerful and almost hellish depiction of the fires that were raging throughout the state in 2020. In a slow graduation from black to a deep claret red, by way of each other and then back to a blackish red again, our eyes are drawn to the lightest point, right in the centre. It’s no light at the end of the tunnel though. All hope here is lost.
Drawing on his artistic sense, the Japanese designer and painter combined his two interests, applying both a painterly eye to graphic design and a designer’s practicality to paint, when re-interpreting a cover to create one of their most memorable ones in recent years. Where, inside the magazine, writers fussed over the correct verbiage to articulate the horrors and photographers tried to capture its intensity - but in doing so only reinforced images we have become so desensitized to - Shibuya found an answer in the abstract.
Evocative of a Mark Rothko painting, had it spent a lifetime in solitary confinement, the cover was something that just made sense to the artist. In the same way as a craftsman is very practical in their interaction with the tools they use and the things they make, Shibuya interacts with his art much the same. Like the lifelong approach to mastery that is commonplace in Japanese culture, ‘artist’ is something he will acquire later on in life.
A large part of his personal practice comes down to his daily routine. First, he wakes up with dawn in the morning, capturing photographs of the things around him - usually the weather from his window or early stroll to collect the paper. Something about the immediacy and potency of dawn has a powerful effect on the young artist’s mind. Nature and the natural evolution of things is inextricably linked to him and his own story. Particularly, it’s linked to how that iconic front cover came to go viral.
When the image of the cover went around the internet, many were duped into believing it to be an official cover of the paper. Unfortunately, it was not. This was just one part of the artist’s daily dawn practice, painting what he sees and feels that very day on the cover of the newspaper, a ritual adopted during the lockdown when his nine-to-five work as founder of a design studio was limited.
The series of daily paintings found the artist notable success on Instagram, where their gentle colourscapes seemed to tap into something at that time, perhaps a collective fragility brought on by the precarity of life during the earliest stages of the pandemic. In coloured in covers of newspapers, many found a salve for their yearning soul.
Although entirely devoid of words, his paintings manage to make poignant comments on political, social, natural and personal moments. In only two or three colours, Shibuya manages to make a profound connection to his audience.
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