Toshio Shibata, Water Colors @Laurence Miller

JTF (just the facts): A total of 23 color photographs, generally framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. All of the works are c-prints, made between 2005 and 2014. The images are shown in one of 4 sizes (or reverse): 4×5 (in editions of 10), 20×24 (in editions of 25), 32×40 (in editions of 10), or 40×50 (in editions of 10). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: We’ve been routinely taught to believe that if we find a perfectly straight line in nature, something is wrong. Nature isn’t supposed to be squared off and linear, it’s inherently chaotic and uneven, and that imperfection is the source of its power – it’s unspoiled, and by definition, man hasn’t been in there mucking around, changing and “improving” things. But as large scale architecture and public works projects have become more environmentally and ecologically aware in recent decades, we’ve seen more structures that have done their best to fit into nature with a more understated and unassuming stance. It’s still impossible to hide the slash of a man made line amid the greenery of a forest or the flow of a river, but given the right attention to and respect for the natural surroundings, that line can be made incrementally more gentle and accommodating, instead of disrupting the balance with an openly arrogant and aggressively attention grabbing gesture.

Toshio Shibata’s photographic waterscapes seem to celebrate this approach of more humble symbiosis. While his pictures of dams, spillways, canals, and reservoirs are dominated by strict geometries, they have a softness that is unexpected; flowing, falling, and wind rippled water temper the hard-edged crispness of concrete and cement, finding fluid equilibrium rather than competitive dissonance. Even ugly orange divider buoys are transformed into graceful arcs, decorating the water surface with swooping sinuous curves.

As the title of the exhibition implies, this show is really about color, and in the nearly two dozen images on view, the color of the water is ever changing. It is milky tan, emerald green, gun metal grey, sky blue, rusty orange, dirty light brown, faded dark green, royal blue, and frothy white, each iteration providing its own contrasts and harmonies with the surrounding landscapes. With the sky cropped out and his camera focused down on smaller fragments of the land and water, Shibata’s pictures are at once formally rigid and quietly painterly; from afar, many of these angled waterfalls and cross cutting constructions become nearly abstract, fields of muted color balanced against each other.

While the history of photography is filled with pictures of dams as hulking construction projects, aspirational civil engineering monuments, massive interventions, and out of place eyesores, Shibata captures the dam as something that nestles in rather than sticks out. To my American eyes, that sensitivity to the consciously designed harmony of the land feels very Japanese. Shibata’s photographs further synthesize that aesthetic concern, capturing nature and infrastructure merging without antagonism.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced as follows, based on size and place in the edition. The 4×5 prints are $1500 each, the 20×24 prints are $3750, the 32×40 prints are $10000 or $14000 each, and the 40×50 prints are $12000 or $17000 each. While Shibata’s prints have shown up at auction a few times in recent years, the price range of $1500 and $7500 may not be entirely representative of the broader market for his work. As such, gallery retail may still be the best/only option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Toshio Shibata, Laurence Miller Gallery ~ 521 West 26th

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JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2023 (no website link). Hardcover (21.7 x 28 cm), 98 pages, with 58 black and white photographs. Design by the artist. (Cover and spread ... Read on.

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