Awash in the vivid colors of early morning light, Sho Shibuya’s paintings are orienting. This day, this time, this newspaper, this tiny slice of New York City sky.
By Grace Ebert, Author at Colossal
Working on freshly printed pages of The New York Times, Shibuya began his daily sunrises during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic when time seemed to collapse in on itself. Finding ways to divide the hours and weeks was necessary for reminding ourselves that life was not just an endless blur of illness and frightening headlines. Rituals like Shibuya’s were grounding, ways to shift our perspective from time as a nebulous void to something that could provide structure and steer us through the world. Each day, this routine, lockstep with the headlines.
Three years later, Shibuya continues to produce his sunrise paintings every morning. The pieces are uniform but not static, always situated below the masthead but widely varied in color and energy. Sometimes he renders a relaxed progression of pale blues and sometimes an electrifying gradient that spans a broad spectrum of color.
Every painting, though, obscures the events that would otherwise define a day and set it apart from any other. A dramatic run from navy to fiery orange masks news of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that left tens of thousands dead in Turkey and Syria earlier this year. A plane of periwinkle shifts to a saturated violet evoking the hues of a particularly nasty bruise as it obscures a photo of protests in France against changes to the legal retirement age. Presented in dual-sided frames that leave the remaining news intact and visible, Shibuya’s paintings are instants of reprieve and intimacy, supplanting matter-of-fact reporting with his personal ritual.
For the artist, this routine has become a necessary meditation and a way to right himself each day in a world that can feel infinitely unstable and disturbing. As an immigrant wanting to better understand his adopted home, Shibuya originally gravitated toward The New York Times because it offered insight into his new city, context around U.S. culture and politics, and a chance to practice English. Although he’s begun to use the pages to distill timely, complex issues—these pieces summarise events like the Chinese spy balloon spotted flying over the U.S. or the horrifying number of mass shootings that plague this country into refined, incisive visuals that punctuate the days’ news like an exclamation point—he still continues his sunrises.
Month centres on these ritualistic works, all depicting clear days between January and May. Comprised of thirty paintings and one sculpture, the exhibition stretches and compresses time, layering the inside spreads of newspapers throughout the gallery with thirty of Shibuya’s paintings lining the perimeter. The floor covering acts as a tread, a gripping if not destabilising force that immerses the viewer in the chaos of daily news. The sunrises, on the other hand, are beacons, pulling us from the black-and-white mayhem into vibrant colour, just as they do each day for the artist.
At the centre of the gallery stands a sculpture also comprised of thirty paintings curled into a circle that evoke the soft petals of a flower. This three-dimensional form condenses several weeks of time and further distorts the papers’ defining features. Whereas the individual paintings retain just the masthead, Shibuya leaves headlines visible on those in the sculpture, melding his soothing skies with major, even grim, news. Because the pages are curled, though, we see just fragments of text, like “Biden Pledges” and “Warn Kyiv,” suggesting that what we consume and how we interpret information is always affected by our individual viewpoints. The outlook from New York is different than that from London or Kyiv or Beijing, and depending on our perspective, thirty days can feel like a blip or an eternity.
In this way, Month prompts questions of perception and positioning. From where are we looking? And when?
While Shibuya is clear-eyed in his own orientation and beliefs, he is not schismatic, and his paintings acknowledge the shared limitations of being human. Whether we’re ideologically aligned, living in the same timezone, or in agreement about how to right the world’s ills, we all exist under the same sky and have the opportunity to recognize what unites us.
It’s also important to return to Shibuya’s decision to include only paintings of clear skies in Month. As Americans have witnessed with recent climate crisis-induced incidents like biblical floods and ominous wildfire smoke that shades the continent and seems to choke the atmosphere, the sun rising is a sure event but not always a visible one. Sometimes, it remains hidden behind haze or clouds for what feels like weeks on end.
And so in Month, the artist is selective and chooses works that depict the colours and contours of the sky with complete lucidity. Finding this sense of clarity is what drives Shibuya, his daily paintings both filtering instances of timeless, humbling awe and warning of their potential loss. Like the ritual the works grew out of, the exhibition provides direction, asking each of us to question how we interpret the world, what we choose to see, and when we look.
Though Month guides us toward clear skies and bright spots amid the darkness, the point of rituals like Shibuya’s is that they happen no matter the conditions or circumstances. Even when confronted with depressing front pages and gloomy skies, there’s comfort in knowing that the sun will still rise, and the artist will still paint.