Sho Shibuya's influences in time and spirituality
Month, Sho Shibuya’s first exhibition with Unit London, is a meditative examination of the crossovers between time, personal experience and global events.
By following a daily ritual of watching the sunrise each morning, reading the New York Times, and painting an abstract depiction of the sunrise onto the title page, Shibuya is asking questions about how we fit into a larger narrative and how that relationship manifests itself in our feelings, actions and creations. A closer understanding of Shibuya’s work can be achieved through a comparison to two artists that have deeply influenced him: Mark Rothko and On Kawara.
When we talk about Rothko in this instance, we’re talking about the works created from 1949 until his death in 1970 – these are the quintessential Rothkos, large abstract rectangles that buzz and hum against each other. In the 1950s, Rothko was trying to break down all associations in his art: there was no room for history, memory, narrative or form, the only goal was to capture the essence of human emotion. In an increasingly turbulent and modern world, Rothko wanted to connect with the viewer on a spiritual level. In painting over the New York Times every day, Shibuya is engaging in something similar. He first absorbs the news in all its pain and clamour, then washes over it with something calming and natural in the form of gradient painting, transcending the every day for something more spiritual. The ritualistic element in Shibuya’s work also forms a connection between the artists: standing in front of a Rothko painting has often been likened to a religious experience, in repeating the same soothing and cerebral journey day after day, Shibuya is undertaking something similar to religious routine.
“Painting might be similar to the process of keeping a journal and checking how I feel about the day. Since I started to do the same thing every day, I easily notice small changes in nature. The morning air shone by the morning sun is quiet, very light, and gentle.”
Edges and borders are very important in both artists’ work. Rothko painted with a very thin turpentine wash, allowing layers of previously used colour to be perceived through the more recent additions. He would then use a technique known as turpentine burn – where he would soak a rag in turpentine and rub it on the already hazy border between colours – to blur the boundary further. The result of this is a sense of floating, vibrating shapes that stand apart whilst drifting and bumping into each other. Shibuya’s borders are starker, he leaves the newspaper headline and a small margin around the sides. This is perhaps because, unlike Rothko, Shibuya does not want us to forget the outside world altogether, but rather to think about our role within it and assess how we can flourish in accordance with nature while society steams on. Nevertheless, the use of borders – or lack thereof – is key to both artists resonating with their viewer. This leads to one more particularly fundamental connection between Rothko and Shibuya. Rothko wanted the viewer to stare into his works and therefore into the void. He wanted to create – through a spiritual connection between artist and viewer – a situation whereby the viewer can confront universal human tragedy. Shibuya’s use of the New York Times front page, a space most often occupied by sad news, and the inversion of this towards something beautiful and transcendent, asks the viewer to consider the same phenomenon.
The second artist that Shibuya is notably indebted to is On Kawara, a mid-century Japanese artist. In 1966 he began his Today series, a daily undertaking that would last nearly five decades. Every day he would paint a monochromatic canvas with the date of completion inscribed in white paint; each work would be stored in a cardboard box, often lined with a cutting from a local newspaper. Inspired by Kawara’s Date Painting series, Shibuya became fascinated with the artistic potential of creating daily paintings. He began to create certain illustrations, characters that represented each day of the week. He would render them in different forms and contexts each day, a routine he would maintain for nearly four years. Shibuya began to use the newspaper model around the time of the Covid-19 pandemic. By following Kawara’s strict rules and incorporating his own artistic interpretation, Shibuya found inspiration in the conceptual exploration of time as a construct within the context of daily life.
Shibuya’s practice has several key points at its core. In a similar way to both Rothko and Kawara, he wants to use abstract gradient painting to create a heavily emotional response to an artwork; he wants to create a spiritual experience, one that echoes his own daily ritual, whereby the viewer is free to think about the tragedies of the world at large and the role the individual plays within it. Like Rothko and Kawara, Shibuya also wants to capture the essence of time in his art, he wants his work to frame time, to box it in, to hum and fizz with temporal energy. The overall goal of this is to achieve some kind of peace in a fast and changeable modern world.