Rei Naito, Face (the joys were greater), ca. 1993–95/2015, magazine, thread, approx. 10 3/4 × 8 × 1 3/4".

Rei Naito, Face (the joys were greater), ca. 1993–95/2015, magazine, thread, approx. 10 3/4 × 8 × 1 3/4".

Rei Naito

Gallery Koyanagi

Rei Naito, Face (the joys were greater), ca. 1993–95/2015, magazine, thread, approx. 10 3/4 × 8 × 1 3/4".

In Japan’s current furor over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “reinterpretation” of the postwar constitution’s renunciation of war, it’s hard not to see everything here through a political prism. At a recent protest outside the National Diet Building, one of the speakers, an animator, began his speech by invoking the etymological connection between animation and “life giving” via the root anima. Although his message was garbled in the hubbub of the crowd and by the caprices of the speaker system, the man—I didn’t catch his name—seemed to be suggesting that we assembled protesters were animating the constitution, giving it life, even as Abe was trying to strangle it.

These words unexpectedly returned to mind a few days later while I was viewing Rei Naito’s exhibition “The joys were greater.” Naito was showing a series of works called “Face (the joys were greater),” which she began circa 1993 but exhibited for the first time this year. The fragile objects, which Naito makes by tearing out pages from fashion spreads, crumpling them up, and partially unfolding them, were then suspended from the wall by loops of thread, so that they could be stirred and, indeed, animated by the passing air currents. Activated through motion, the manifold creases in the paper redistribute the hierarchy of information in the images. Where usually the model is the fulcrum of the fashion composition, in Naito’s sculptures, all of which use black-and-white images, each individual crease assumes equal significance as it distorts facial features, pinching brow and nose together, or refracts light when the object flutters against the wall. In one work, a half-naked model, shot against a nondescript backdrop, seems to dissolve into a terrain of grayscale tones. Another features an image of a young woman standing on the sidewalk of a French city—as the headlines of the broadsheet placards around her suggest—but through Naito’s intervention, the relations between subject and background are collapsed: A billboard visible in the upper-right corner, itself showing the lower half of a female face, with lips parted suggestively, takes prominence over the model, who is obscured where the paper buckles under itself. Naito deftly prises apart the infrathin gap between the reproducible image as thing and as representation; in a sense, she is sculpting a piece of paper that is at the same time an image (and double-sided at that) and an accumulation of other people’s decisions—among them those of the model, the photographer, the designers and editors, the publishers and distributors, and finally the consumer, Naito herself.

This sense of heightened sensitivity spills over to the other works on display. Scattered among the paper sculptures were a handful of translucent balloons suspended from the ceiling (Untitled, 2015); abstracted, thumb-size figurines from the series “Human,” 2011–, carved from pale wood and presented on tiny plinths fixed to the walls; and almost colorless paintings from the “color beginning” series, 2009–. As with the folds in the paper, all of these works have elements that reorient the scope of attention. Approaching one of the figurines, for example, brings into view the body of a dead gnat, or wisps of black fibers—hints of the alternate universes subsumed into the overall texture of the space. The paintings, made via the application of thin layers of acrylic color onto the canvas, evoke flattened prisms, separating light into fleeting impressions of red, blue, or yellow tints; but hung against the white wall, they, too, blended with their environs.

The surprise here was that the human form should suddenly emerge as a motif for an artist who has consistently eschewed imagemaking as such. The paper sculptures have a non-sequitur quality about them; they do not seem to comment on the fashion industry or the representation of women. Rather, there is something exciting and uncanny about how Naito gives life, and weight, to what otherwise might be considered throwaway materials, inert matter.

Andrew Maerkle