Rei Naito has always had a light touch—both in the sense of employing light and shadow to create an aura and in the sense of using vulnerable or ephemeral materials. Her U.S. debut in the ‘90s, in a group show at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City, was a thin, pale tent that viewers could enter one at a time, shoes off. A few years ago she was making tiny gossamer pillows, shown under glass on tall pedestals, bedding for some other-world being.
This recent show continued her fragile assertions. It consisted of white balloons, minuscule carved figures, white paintings, and crumpled magazine pages. The balloons were hung from the ceiling on short strings. Those where one stepped off the elevator to enter the gallery were likely to be overlooked as one’s eyes were drawn to the walls. In niches and on small brackets were tiny carved figures, rigid and idol-like, at most 2 inches tall, mostly white and dressed in what seemed to be long-sleeved, mid-calf unarticulated dresses or coats; it was hard to tell if I was seeing legs, trousers or a narrow skirt. These are from her “human” series—her first figurative works—begun following the catastrophic earthquake of 2011 as an act of hope. There were also white paintings, squares of various small sizes. I studied them for some underlying image. The edges seemed whiter than the middles and there might have been a faint network of yellow lines—or was that some biological effect of my eye condition or the hue of the spotlights juxtaposed to the warm white color of the walls?
Most provocative were the magazine pages, a series titled “Face (the joys were greater).” All were black-and-white sheets from high-end women’s magazines that were once taped to a wall—tape residue, often yellowed, remained—but had since been crumpled in frustration, disinterest or rage and some then smoothed out, in regret. Tacked to the wall or hung from a transparent thread, they disclosed only fragments of their subjects: fashionable women, mostly young, objectified. One page had a tiny knit cap attached to a corner, above the model’s crumpled face. One page showed a young woman, nude above the waist, wearing a feather crown. A slightly older woman, her dark hair atop her head, had a knit cap near the wrinkled bottom, but here it recalled the curl-texture of a Buddha head. According to gallery information, what links the images is laughter, strangely altered by her treatment of them.
Circling the room, noticing, adding up, I returned to the beginning: two white balloons outside the elevator doors, a crushed-and-smoothed image of a young woman gesturing, a niche framing a balloon lit from above so its whiteness stood out, along with the first carved figure, this one with a knit head or the headcovers which some Japanese place on temple statues of Jizo, protector of children.
Protection, display. Invisibility, purity. Control by garment, by expectation or by artist’s actions. And the white paintings? Maybe a blank slate on which to write your own future. The show was an ultimate of subtlety and recessiveness.
Janet Koplos is a Contemporary art critic and writer.
Volume 30 number 3 January / February 2016 p36