Toshio Shibata: FIVE DECADES @Laurence Miller

JTF (just the facts): A total of 47 photographs and other works, variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space, the smaller back gallery, and the entry/reception area.

The photographs on view include:

  • 6 chromogenic prints, 2006, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2015, 40×50 inches (or reverse), in editions of 10
  • 3 chromogenic prints, 2006, 2007, 2008, 32×40 inches, in editions of 10
  • 5 chromogenic prints, 2005, 2007, 2015, 2018, 2019, 20×24 inches, in editions of 25
  • 13 chromogenic contact prints, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019, 4×5 inches, in editions of 10
  • 1 Lambda print, 2013, sized roughly 16×24 inches, in an edition of 10
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1997, 14×11 inches, in an edition of 10
  • 2 gelatin silver prints, 1196, 1998, 24×20 inches (or reverse), in editions of 25
  • 3 gelatin silver prints, 1989, 1994, 2004, 32×40 (or reverse), 45×35 inches, in editions of 10
  • 9 gelatin silver contact prints, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986, 8×10 inches, in editions of 5

Additional works on view include:

  • 1 oil on canvas, 1971, sized roughly 44×67 inches
  • 3 silkscreens on paper, c1974, 1975, sized roughly 16×16, 17×18, 14×22 inches

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Over the past decade, the Japanese photographer Toshio Shibata has had a handful of solo and paired shows at the Laurence Miller Gallery, often centered on a particular body of work or subject matter theme. This show steps back from that kind of focused examination and offers a quick retrospective-style review of the artist’s career. What emerges is a sense of deliberate aesthetic progression, with ideas evolving and being re-examined over time.

Shibata didn’t actually start behind the camera. A selection of his student work from the 1970s reveals painting and printmaking as his first entry points, with lessons absorbed from Jasper Johns and the Precisionist painters coming through in his own early efforts. His first photographs actually arrive in the early 1980s, with black and white images of dark nighttime locations punctuated by the glowing light of gas stations, drive-ins, and other lonely nocturnal outposts. These pictures have a noticeable connection to Robert Adams’ Summer Nights series – especially the spinning carnival rides – but Shibata was clearly working through his own interests in formal composition and mood while channeling Adams. There’s even an unlikely self-portrait hiding among the geometries, with Shibata himself standing in a brightly lit phone booth.

It wasn’t until the early 1990s that Shibata discovered the essence of what would become his mature style. Still working in black and white, he pointed his camera at man-made interventions in nature, from roadworks and concrete drainage culverts to retaining walls and erosion prevention systems, their cool ordered geometries (and their innate contrasts with the natural world) becoming his subject. Flattened by the eye of the camera, these structures become studies of planes, patterns, and surfaces, the spatial depth of stair-stepped dams and canals transformed into elegant arrangements of line and form. These photographs remain some of his most challenging and intricately layered, his eye crisply reorienting and resolving the found geometries.

Shibata’s work in the most recent two decades is represented here by three subject matter-based groupings. The first captures how the flow of water across these kinds of hard-edged structures is softened and muted. Shibata looks down the steep face of the Grand Coulee Dam, watching as the rippled stripes of white water rush down the flat surface. Other images see the water as thin striations that become frothy piles of whiteness as they travel across slicing geometric steps or down semi-circular gathering tubes. Still others examine the contrasts of ordered man-altered falling water within the surroundings of nature, the sheer veils of water defining motion (and the implication of noise), while the tactile details of greenery, dry thickets, and tumbled rocks stand by silently.

The second group observes the floating orange pylons that divide areas of water. Like beads on a string, they create gestural marks that arc across expanses of empty water or make connections to the banks of rivers and lakes. Shibata’s color photographs document how these intrusions become elegantly artistic interventions, the spotted lines bending, turning, and even zig-zagging as they gently traverse the surface. Once again, Shibata is considering the complex interplay of man and nature, finding nuanced abstraction in an unlikely subject.

Shibata’s most well known photographs have been taken of a red bridge in Okawa village in Japan. He has returned to the bridge several times over the years (most recently in 2019), continuing to find new vantage points on its elemental geometries. Its triangular red forms march across the chasm of a valley, the interlocked lines resolving into a bold V-shaped tunnel when viewed straight down the walkway or a criss-crossed lattice from the side. In different seasons, the walls of greenery become a misty flat backdrop or hum with the mottled colors of springtime, offering Shibata variations of color to engage with the brash red paint of the bridge. In many ways, these bridge pictures are the synthesis of his artistic vision, where nature accommodates the controlled lines of humanity, and enduring visual harmony is achieved by finding the balance between the two.

For those who don’t know Shibata’s work well or struggle to figure out where he fits in the larger sweep of the medium, this succinct sampler provides some handy answers. He’s taken some of the key questions that drove the New Topographics photographers (particularly the often ugly evidence of how man has selfishly altered the landscape to suit his own needs) and adapted them to a uniquely Japanese relationship between man and nature. The best of his pictures are as rigorous and ordered as those of Baltz or the Bechers, but they have been informed by a different appreciation for healthy symbiosis. His photographs aren’t about opposition, destruction, or the mindless exploitation of nature, they instead celebrate thoughtful interdependence, where aesthetic beauty, and even abstraction, is rooted in balance and respect.

Collector’s POV: The photographic prints in this show range in price from $1500 to $21000, based on size and place in the edition. Shibata’s prints have shown up intermittently at auction in recent years, with prices ranging from roughly $1000 to $12000.

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