Neon Golden

Shiba Ward: New Works

At Sullivan Goss: An American Gallery, through August 2.

Reviewed by Charles Donelan

Shiba Ward paints big things in small pictures. The freight trains, factories, train stations, and urban scenes Ward finds chiefly in downtown Los Angeles are cropped and focused to their essence in his panels, which typically measure less than 8½ by 11 inches. The best of them are jewel-like — intense and multi-faceted. In “The Original” (2006), a lone figure stands outlined in bright white beneath the awning of an aging Los Angeles coffee shop. The vertical slice of red signage just above his head spells out the establishment’s name, “Philippe,” in white neon, and it is repeated in yellow and red neon script on another sign running horizontally even farther above.

Neon and solitude have appeared together before, most notably in the work of American genre-genius Edward Hopper, but Ward brings to the equation a meticulous attention to the subtleties of available light that makes the pairing feel fresh and new. “The Original” is saturated with the ambient violet light of early evening. The effect is as lovely in its way as Monet’s “Giverny”— minus the flowers. In Ward’s hands, downtown Los Angeles becomes a painter’s paradise, full of auras and halos that call forth brushwork and composition worthy of Cézanne out of subjects more often associated with Ben Shahn or Charles Sheeler.

Ward’s background as an aerospace engineer shows in the careful planning that accompanies every piece, as well as the painstaking process by which he arrives at the final product. Each individual panel typically requires 40 to 50 hours of work, beginning with his peripatetic sketching for composition in train yards and city streets, and proceeding — through supporting documentation that includes photography — to the small-brush work that produces startlingly accurate pictures loaded with information.

The coupling that attaches “Engine No. 1533” (2006) to its freight car, in case you were wondering, is just the way it is in real life, down to the last detail. Each tiny rock in the foreground receives its own individual treatment from the artist, who clearly considers even small stones to be opportunities — more chances to reveal truth. Through this marvelous concentration Ward achieves that most elusive of artistic goals: the creation of a coherent world within his work.

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