Artist and designer Sho Shibuya (previously) grounds his life in ritual. As his routine necessarily changed when COVID-19 closed public spaces and the office of his design studio Placeholder, Shibuya, like many of us, began to focus on life inside his Brooklyn home and channeled the energy he might have spent commuting or out to dinner with friends into a creative practice that he continues today.
Equipped with The New York Times he reads each morning, the Japanese artist started to reinterpret the sunrise outside his apartment window into bright, colorful paintings that masked the cover of the daily newspaper. The works became an exercise in simplicity, minimalism, and meditation, and today, they’re part of a growing archive that includes hundreds of the gradients, in addition to more evocative pieces that reflect on politics and current events. Having garnered attention from myriad publications and institutions—a collection of the sunrises is on view at Triennale Milano through December 11, 2022—the paintings resonate, in part, because of their calm, optimistic response to the world’s unending chaos.
In this interview, Shibuya speaks with Colossal managing editor Grace Ebert about his pared-down, measured approach to conveying complex subject matter, the fluctuating relationship between concept and visual, and his fascination with humble, everyday materials.
Shown above are Shibuya’s works from April 2021. All images © the artist, shared with permission
Grace: What are you working on today?
Sho: Same as usual, I will paint today’s sunrise.
Grace: So you are still continuing sunrises every day in addition to the other pieces that you’re doing?
Sho: Yes. People ask when or why my work shifted from the sunrises to the events I put on Instagram, but I’m still doing the sunrises. I just don’t share all of them.
Grace: What prompted this shift that you’re talking about? The newer pieces are more overtly political, and lately, they also seem more sculptural? I’m thinking about the COVID testing piece with the little nose, the body bag referencing Ukraine.
Sho: The COVID piece and the body bag pieces are three-dimensional. I’m always trying to figure out the best way to represent the story in the news. I don’t force myself to make an acrylic painting, probably because I have never learned how to paint. I’m just self-taught, which perhaps makes me more flexible in my process of what to use.
Grace: The way so many people see your work and interact with it is on Instagram, and the internet is obviously notorious for not always fostering healthy conversations around the difficult and complex topics that you’re talking about. I’m maybe alluding to negative reactions, but how do you handle those?
Sho: I share the paintings as my honest emotional reaction to the day. It’s natural that people have different points of view, and I respect that. I feel it’s meaningful to start a conversation with what I post. It’s not easy to ignore the negative comments, but I don’t engage. My point of view is in the painting, and I don’t take it back.
Grace: You don’t internalize?
Sho: Yes, that’s pretty accurate.
Grace: How do you distill such complex ideas into such minimal paintings? Even the more complex works that you’ve been producing lately are still pretty minimal, and it feels like you capture exactly what’s happening.
Sho: I spend most of the time it takes to create a piece researching. There is a lot of information I need to know. In many cases, I found a hint of what to paint during the research. My preference for minimalism came from my graphic design background. It always needed simple execution in a meaningful way. The only difference now is the client is me.
Grace: In thinking about creating something so focused on the visual, what prompts you to sometimes leave a headline intact? In some of your works, you have the headline up top or maybe in the middle, and sometimes, you mask it entirely. What are the criteria around that?
Sho: The New York Times doesn’t publish a big headline at the top of the front page every day. Only when there’s a big story, like the war in Ukraine or the mass shooting in the Texas school, The New York Times leaves a big, all-caps headline straight across the paper. So when their editors decide a story is important enough that it warrants the big headline, I include the headline in my painting.
Sometimes, I paint over the inside pages for the sunrise, and the abortion issues in Texas was one of them. I felt the visual needs to be more context in addition to the gradient. I preferred the concept over the visual.
If things are very obvious, I do without a headline. The Mona Lisa piece was one of those.
Grace: Basically, then, the criteria is that it has to run on top and span the full page but then also add some context.
Sho: Yes. I always have one principle, like a rule, which is to always pick the concept over the visual. For instance, I know painting on the front cover of the newspaper can seem to be more impactful. But sometimes, if the context is better on a different page, I would prefer a different canvas.
Grace: Why The New York Times? I know that you’ve been in New York for a while now, and I imagine partially because it’s the biggest newspaper, but is there any other reason that you picked that one up in particular?
Sho: I’ve been living in New York for ten years, and I started reading The New York Times regularly in the last five years. I have always felt I needed to immerse myself in U.S. culture more. I’m really good at continuing things every day and sticking to habits. Reading The New York Times was one of those things I did. I’ve gotten to know more about the context of politics. I am in New York and I am subscribed and I see the sunrise in New York, so why not?
A year before I started The New York Times paintings, I was more focused on a nonprofit project. It’s called Plastic Paper. I was interviewed by The New York Times, and I got Sunday’s whole cover, and through the experience of the interview, I admired their process as well.
Grace: I wanted to ask about Plastic Paper. It seems like you’re drawn to ubiquitous materials that people find everywhere. Do you have other collections?
Sho: I love everyday objects. Maybe because I’m a foreigner, I might have a different point of view; like if you go to another country even a street sign might seem interesting to a fresh eye? I felt very intrigued about everyday items. My English teacher told me, “see a penny, pick it up, and all the day, you’ll have good luck.” I have been collecting pennies ever since.
I treat the paintings the same as eating or sleeping; a vital part of my daily routine. It’s a little mission for myself, to capture the sunrise every day as a visual diary.—Sho Shibuya
Grace: Can you talk about the ritual nature of your work and its connection to slowness and intentionality to me? In thinking about reading a print paper, you’re not scrolling, reading half an article, swiping to the next thing, getting distracted. Watching a sunrise feels similar. Those parts of your life seem to contrast the fast, reactionary pace of the news cycle. I would love to know how you think about that.
Sho: The process of flipping through the newspaper, watching the sunrise, and then painting every morning is quite meditative, but I also like reading digitally because it’s easier for me to look up unknown words. But I treat the paintings the same as eating or sleeping; a vital part of my daily routine. It’s a little mission for myself, to capture the sunrise every day as a visual diary.
Grace: I read somewhere that you said that time inspires you most. Does that still feel true today?
Sho: Yes. For instance, the timestamp on old photos is really inspiring. I feel moved when an object captures the time. So seeing the dateline at the top of the front page is quite moving, and I don’t know how long they’ll continue to print the paper, but I hope my paintings can become like an artifact preserving the moment for the future.
Grace: I want to return to your graphic design practice. You’ve described how your background affects the work that you do in terms of keeping things minimal and how you’re conceptualizing, but do you think that it goes the other way as well? Does your painting practice influence graphic design?
Sho: Probably they correspond with each other. As a graphic designer, I focus on tangible things, like creating models for packaging by cutting paper like origami and creating the model. That kind of craftsmanship probably inspired some artworks like the COVID testing piece. I don’t think it’s as literal as saying my interest in sunrises is directly reflected in my commercial design work, but I would say there are shared elements and techniques and influences.
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