Naomi Kawanishi Reis: Snippets of Beauty

The artist with her work

In her drawings, murals and paintings, Japanese born, and Brooklyn based artist Naomi Kawanishi Reis, utilizes paper and fabric to make idealized spaces, ranging from utopian architecture of modernism, gardens, and more recently, still life in domestic spaces. In this recent body of work, Reis starts with photographs taken by her mother of her ikebana arrangements displayed outside the family home in Kyoto. Reis downloads the images from the family online chat, the link that has connected her diasporic family across oceans.

You were born in Shiga, Japan and besides making art you have also worked as a copyeditor and translator from Japanese into English. Tell me a bit about yourself and what brought you to make 2D works using everyday materials?

Making work out of everyday materials points back to the elemental human need to make, to touch, to respond to material, using whatever is around. I feel an affinity with craftspeople, people who lived close to the land and lived off the labor of their hands. My mom’s father was a blacksmith in a small farming and fishing village in Kochi prefecture in Japan, and my father’s family were second-generation Swedish-American farmers in Massachusetts. The urge to make, I think, comes from a place older than myself, going back to the lineage of laborer rather than to aristocratic court artists.

My first artworks, if they can be called that, happened naturally out of need. I was in my mid-20s, and had recently left the low-paying salaried job at the New York office of a Japanese printing company that had brought me to the city. I had moved to the U.S. from Kyoto in the mid-1990s to attend a liberal arts college upstate and was still struggling with culture shock. In this isolated time with few friends and no family nearby to lean on, I started drawing, collaging, cutting, gluing as a way to keep my hands busy and my mind from spinning in negative circles. I truly think this activity saved me, put me in a parallel space-time where joy was possible, where invention and creativity brought light and new possibilities.

Watching my bank account inch toward zero, I emailed around to see if anyone had any job leads. The internet didn’t exist yet. A friend from college was working as a copyeditor at J.Crew (shoutout to Andy Scully!), and invited me to apply to join the team. This was how I began my parallel career as a copyeditor, the job that unbeknownst to me then was to sustain me financially for the next two decades as I slowly gained the courage to inhabit the world as an artist. At first, I made work that could fit on a desk in my tiny room. That meant starting with materials that I felt comfortable with and could afford, and that meant paper. I think instinctively I’ve always loved paper, and Japanese paper in particular—its soft yet durable qualities that feels good to touch, wants to be touched. Paper is democratic and is everywhere, used for everything from junk mail to offerings to the gods, to money.

In your recent two person show at Transmitter you exhibited work that starts with photographs taken by your mother of her ikebana (“living” + “flower”) arrangements, which are displayed outside your family home in Kyoto. You then download the images from the family group chat, the link that for decades has connected you to your family across the oceans. You say that “these ‘Living flowers’ are jaunty tricksters—they are cut, meaning they are dead; by being arranged, they are made to appear alive. These freshly dead tricksters entice the living with their colorful beauty, while reminding us of our universal pact with death.” Your paintings, however burst with vitality, at times verging on rupture. They perhaps also hint at a digital source. Can you elaborate on that?

My paintings and larger wall pieces all come from digital sources. They start with photographs that I take, then manipulate digitally, playing with the colors and composition until they feel right. Then begins the process of slowly translating the image into material, using painted and cut washi paper and mylar layered up piece by piece, like brushstrokes. I learned to read and write Japanese at age 9 after my family moved to Kyoto from Ithaca, NY, for my dad’s teaching job, so this method might link back to brain wiring that happened when learning how Chinese characters build up meaning, stroke by stroke.

Much like my experience of learning Japanese much later than my classmates, kind of scrambling to catch up and fumbling toward some semblance of fluency in whatever manner possible, my experience of art-making followed a similar route of self-teaching rather than learning the proper way in art school. Maybe the method I developed goes back to brain wiring that happens when you learn something in a hurry, a newcomer’s way of learning how to do something awkwardly, desperately, and slightly incorrectly.

Wildflowers and Fever Dreams, installation view at Transmitter, Brooklyn, NY, April 2021. Shown with photographs by Christopher Rodriguez. Photo courtesy of Carl Gunhouse.

Naomi Reis, 111119 (90˚W), 2021, acrylic on washi paper and mylar, 47 ⅞ x 36 ¾ inches. Photo courtesy of Paul Takeuchi

Collage seems to be central in your work. In the text for Wildflowers and Fever Dreams it says that your collages offer “a meditation on the disconnect between generations; on transcultural and trans-generational female creativity; and on the attempts to bridge the gaps in-between.” Can you tell me more about your collage process and how is it related to these notions?

This relates to what I mentioned earlier, about how for me collage and working with paper feel like a democratic process that links back to an elemental human desire to make, to express—something immediate and accessible. You don’t have to be born into a family of artists or have special training to work with paper; no one has to give you permission. The way I piece my mom’s photographs back together, from their digital source across the ocean, and rebuild them piece by paper piece over on my side of the world, comes from a desire to bring back together in a literal way through this material process—cutting and painting, gluing and layering—the impossible boundaries of distances, both geographical and psychological.

By making the work larger than life at 7½ feet high, I want to give weight and presence to a feminine art form that is often seen as little more than decoration, transforming it into something monumental.

I am looking at 71220 (9:17am), a large-scale painting on washi paper and mylar. What is the meaning of the title, the idea behind this image and a bit about the process?

The titles of this series refer to the date it was posted to the family text message account, and where applicable includes the degrees of the rotation of the work compared to original image. The piece you refer to was taken at night in Kyoto but received the morning of the same date on my end in New York. Our night is their morning, and their morning is our night; we are always talking to each other at opposite times of the day.

Naomi Reis, 71220 (9:17am), 2021, acrylic on washi paper and mylar cutouts, 93 x 55 inches. Photo courtesy of Carl Gunhouse.

Tell me about your small work series on Frank Lloyd Wrights living room – for instance, what is your resource? What is the story/idea behind this series? Did you conceive it as a series?

That series came out of a fascination with architecture—the idea that a philosophical belief can manifest as form and distill into a habitable building. My parents taught in the linguistics department at Morris Hall at Cornell University when I was little, a few buildings down from I.M. Pei’s Johnson Art Museum in Ithaca, NY. We would visit the museum frequently, and it had a profound impact on my psyche. You would enter the museum, ride the elevator to the top, then bam: wraparound panoramic views of Cayuga Lake and the surrounding hills, all blue and green and light against the muted colors and hushed quiet of the museum’s East Asian art collection. It was a thrill each time the elevator doors opened, like curtains going up on a dramatically lit stage. This was a different kind of place where the ordinary rules of life were suspended; here you were given permission to wander around and be led by your curiosity. That realization was probably what led me to want to live in that kind of space as much as humanly possible.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s house that he built for himself in the Arizona desert, Taliesin West (1939~), has a similar kind of aura. I visited in 2016 to get a sense of what it felt like to inhabit; what kind of domestic space did the famously arrogant patriarch of American architecture build for himself later in life, at age 70? The buildings are low to the ground, and their single-floor structures spread out horizontally along the desert, the colors mimicking the surrounding land. While what made Wright famous was his buildings, I found myself most interested in the interiors, the domestic spaces. Where did the bodies gather, what did the inhabitants look at and live with? Who made the artwork scattered throughout? Where are they now, why do we not know their names?

At the time, my father had recently died of pancreatic cancer, back in Japan. He was a white American, and I knew that toward the end of his life, he had wanted to die in the U.S. I think at the end we all want to return to a place that feels like where we came from. So I was thinking a lot about death, wandering spirits, and dealing with depression. A prevailing sense of rootlessness, loss, and financial insecurity after dropping everything to spend several months in Japan after my father died—had put me in a state of unravel. With my father gone, the language spoken in the family shifted abruptly to Japanese, and I felt unmoored and unsure of my place in the world; the precariousness of my situation living so far away from family as an artist suddenly felt even more tenuous and irresponsible. The gallery I had shown at had just closed, the drumbeat of Trump’s fascism was getting louder, and I was feeling overwhelmed. All I could do at the time was make these tiny colored-pencil drawings and small-scale paintings, contracting back to the scale of work I was making back when I first started making work on a desk in the late-1990s.

Naomi Reis, Frank Lloyd Wright’s sunroom (left side), 2019, acrylic on pigment-printed fabric on panel, 12 x 12 inches. Photo courtesy of Paul Takeuchi.

Naomi Reis, Plate, plant, pot, (Frank Lloyd Wright’s sunroom), 2018, colored pencil on paper, 10 x 8 inches. Photo courtesy of Paul Takeuchi.

A lot of your small works from 2019 are made with pigment printed fabric on panel. What would you like to share about this process and its genesis for you?

During this period, I was struggling with my mental health. After my father’s passing, I was staying at my mom’s house south of Kyoto for a few months, and there was little to do but take long meandering walks around the neighborhood. I didn’t have any friends left nearby, so I spent a fair amount of time alone, worrying about what the future might hold. I ended up taking a lot of photos on my iPhone, moments of observation from everyday life that held tiny snippets of beauty. Like light shining onto a wet plastic shower curtain, my shadow on the pavement, prism reflections falling on a bouquet of flowers from a friend.

I had a selection of those photos printed onto cotton fabric, put them through the wash several times to soften them out, then stretched them on a panel, and then painted back into them. In retrospect these humble little pieces ended up being quotidian observations on the fleetingness of life, and the act of noticing these small moments of beauty in the ordinary became a balm and a path through the process of mourning.

Pavement and Shadows, Uji, 2019, acrylic on pigment-printed fabric on panel, 8 x 10 inches. Photo courtesy of Theo Coulombe.

You have large works, including murals and small works. What is your approach to working in each scale?

For the murals, it’s about taking up space, about creating an environment that engulfs the viewer. The larger scale becomes a stand-in for an entire environment, a metaphor for a place. I always feel a bit outside the two worlds that I inhabit, both as an American here in New York, and back in Japan as a Japanese person. I am what is called ハーフ(half) in Japan, a person of mixed race. It’s not just race though, it’s mental as well: one body, two spirits. Because I often feel only one part of me inhabits space depending on whether I’m speaking in English or Japanese, it’s easy for me to feel a bit disembodied, like a part of me is dormant while the other part is performing. So, the larger pieces help to ground me in a parallel space that both sides can inhabit simultaneously.

The smaller works are more introspective and correspond to the interior self, the self that isn’t on display in the public realm.
While the smaller pieces I make for myself, the larger pieces claim a third space in the world, a heterotopic, inclusive, liminal 間(ma) space that allows for multiplicity. When I work on a translation project, that activity also allows me to inhabit the world in-between languages, so I think of translation as a verbal version of the visual work I do using materials. Both activities allow me to manifest a non-binary existence in-between borders.

Naomi Reis. Borrowed Landscape VIII (warm temperate climate, winter / humid continental climate, summer), 2020, custom-printed wallpaper with acrylic on washi paper and mylar cutouts in frame, 21 x 14 feet. Photo courtesy of Jaclyn Kain

What are you working on in your studio these days?

I am working toward a three-person exhibition at a contemporary art space in Kyoto called @KCUA in November 2021. The show is titled Still, Life: まだ、生きてます. By adding a comma in between Still and Life, the meaning shifts from being about the genre of still life, to being about the life that Covid made stand still. I am collaborating with two artists from Kyoto: Sakiko Kurita, a painter, and Asuka Hishiki, an artist known for her botanical paintings. We are presenting views from everyday life, things you might see in and around your house, only a little askew, and strange. Right now I’m figuring out how to make paper clay floor sculptures that mimic gravel; weeds growing through cracks, that will be combined with projected video. This is work I was developing for a show planned for September 2020 at a university gallery, but had to be canceled during the pandemic, so I’m really excited to have a chance to show it, and to show for the first time, in my hometown of Kyoto. And I can’t wait to get to see my family again, it’s been a long time!

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: