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Toshio Shibata, Constructed Landscapes

Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts
Through February 2, 2014

One of the comments from the guest book at the Toshio Shibata show Constructed Landscapes reads, “I couldn’t tell what some of the pictures were of, but they were beautiful just the same!” Other similar concerns populate the book, but rather than seeing this as a problem, I see it as the show’s strength.

The exhibition comprises 25 of Shibata’s photos: 11 black-and-white prints from the late ’80s and early ’90s and 14 color photographs from the last seven years. All capture the varied landscapes of Japan, with corresponding human-made interventions. What is fascinating about this work is that it neither glorifies dilapidated structures nor edenic nature; instead, it presents a collision of the two with enough space for the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions. The curatorial move of showing these two phases in Shibata’s career highlights this aspect of his evolution as an artist. The abstraction in his early work does not obscure the reading; one can understand the subject matter from a distance, and a closer look reveals additional detail.

The photos from the last seven years, on the other hand, operate differently. Many of these resemble collage from a distance. It is only as one draws near that they reveal themselves as landscape photographs. At an arm’s length, the subject matter of the piece crystallizes, likely differently for each visitor. In this process, the viewer is forced to work toward an understanding; the “right” reading is not given —  because it doesn’t exist — and considering the subject, that feels appropriate.