Neon Golden

Shiba Ward: New Works

At Sullivan Goss: An American Gallery, through August

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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