An accomplished artist with a background in Art Criticism, Milan-based Simona Cozzupoli draws from the likes of Cornell, De Chirico and Magritte to create awe-inspiring shadow boxes where the mundane and the magical collide and merge.
A master in the art of assemblage, Simona Cozzupoli takes everyday and found objects to make glass-fronted display cases where the magical and the familiar rub shoulders. Imbued with symbolic meaning, her shadow boxes incorporating discarded artefacts are gateways to the fantastic and the wondrous that reveal the intimately poetic nature of the mundane.
Born and raised in Milan, Simona divides her time between visiting art galleries and hunting for inspiration in flea markets and vintage shops. A graduate in History of Art and Art Criticism, she sites René Magritte, Giorgio De Chirico and Joseph Cornell – one of the most celebrated and inventive exponents of the assemblage – among her favourite artists.
We caught up with Simona Cozzupoli to find out all about her work.
Simona Cozzupoli, Natura morta contemplativa con idolo, sfere e farfalla – 2020
Hello Simona, thank you for finding time for 1883.
When did your interest in art first develop? And when did you realise art was something that you wanted to devote your career to?
Hi Jacopo, thank you for having me. As a child, besides drawing, I loved to make three-dimensional objects using paper, cardboard, glue, waste materials, and pretty much anything I could find at home really. I have always had a thing for cutting and pasting different things together to create new, unexpected objects, and I have always found poetry in the ordinary.
What was a childhood pastime has now turned into my practice: I take found and everyday objects and rework them into works of art giving them a new life and potency. My shadow boxes are filled with fragments of everyday life: cut-out playing cards, vintage dolls, butterflies and parrots, tokens, twigs as fairy trees, miniature furnishings displayed to create what I like to call “object-rebuses”.
My interest in shadow boxes has been with me since I was very young: as a child I would collect tiny, poetic and evocative objects, put them in a box and use it to evade reality. Boxes remind me of tiny doll houses, and also have a special, symbolic meaning to me: you store objects into boxes, and the memories objects carry with them.
Did you receive any formal training?
I did not attend any Art school so I did not receive any formal training. I graduated in Humanities with a specialisation in History of Art and Art Criticism from the University of Milan; my dissertation focused on Francesco Lo Savio (Rome, 28 February 1935 – Marseille, 21 September 1963), a little-known Italian artist from the late 50s, and the brother of the better-known Tano Festa. Although I consider myself a self-taught artist, I also believe my university education has been critical in the development of my career. When I started university, I also began to frequently go to exhibitions and museums.
Simona Cozzupoli, Wunderkammer postmoderna – 2011
Which artists are you most drawn to for inspiration?
The first name that comes to my mind is that of Joseph Cornell. It is not so much the similarities between our works, rather the creative and compositional process behind them that makes me feel close to him artistically.
Cornell believed you could find interesting objects, objects worth being used to make art, everywhere. From his perspective, the artist is a “scavenger”: nothing is to be deemed insignificant or ordinary, everything has an inner artistic potential that is often revealed through the eyes of the beholder. Like Joseph Cornell, in order to make my shadow boxes, I do wander around and scavenge a lot; looking for stories to tell, I go to vintage shops and flea markets, where my imagination soars unfettered, triggered by the endless possibilities the art of assemblage can offer.
An artist I draw inspiration from – one Cornell also admired – is Giorgio De Chirico, whose metaphysical paintings convey the enticing sense of estrangement mundane objects can evoke. In his work we often see low ceiling rooms – which remind me of shadow boxes – framing the compositions.
René Magritte – who, like Cornell, was familiar with the work of De Chirico – is an artist I am certainly fond of. I am particularly interested in Magritte’s reflection on the complicated relationships between images, words and reality, which anticipated the conceptual art movement. D’après Magritte, a work of mine of which two versions exist, is dedicated to the Belgian artist. D’après Magritte consists of a timber box as a three-dimensional frame, and a pipe, suspended against the typical Magritte’s blue sky, dotted with white clouds. At the bottom, an inscription reads: “Ceci n’est pas un ciel nuageux” (this is not a cloudy sky), a reference to the famous Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. In my work, in fact, the pipe is real, while the cloudy sky was made using blue enamel paint and white wadding.
Finally, another artist who inspires me is Czech director Jan Svankmajer, whose stop-motion films animate all sorts of objects. Among my favourite movies is Alice, whose original title translates as Something from Alice, it’s Svankmajer’s very personal take on Lewis Carroll’s novel. The film opens with a sentence that sounds like a paradox, a sentence Alice says while addressing the viewers: you must close your eyes otherwise you won’t see anything. The film was the inspiration for two shadow boxes featuring a little blonde doll: Alice and the White Rabbit and Alice in the Cabinet of Wonder (2016).
What themes do you find yourself coming back to in your work?
There is a common thread that runs through all my works, that is, the aesthetics of the Wunderkammer, of the cabinet of wonders – a room where bizarre, curious objects are exhibited. My shadow boxes aim to be awe-inspiring “solicitors of memory, that is, supports to contemplation”, to quote Indian art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy. The themes behind my work are, in a way, all linked to the concept of wonder as the emotion aroused by something awe-inspiring, that induces a contemplative mood.
Recurring themes in my work are: childhood (children are constantly amazed by the ceaseless novelty of the world) and play; the dreamlike, fairy universe that is inhabited by all sorts of symbols and archetypes, which in my work are often represented by playing cards; the relationship between words and images. Souvenirs and Barbie dolls, playing cards, chess pieces, miniature origami and toys, are some of the elements more frequently featured in my works. In some of my early boxes, dolls are seen folding and cutting sheets to shape three-dimensional figures that serve as gateways to imaginary worlds, while reminding the viewer that wonder is in fact a tool for knowledge. You see, I interpret the world as a dense net of correspondences, a web we can only untangle when we rely on poetry and clairvoyance.
The theme of play is central to my object-rebuses: the viewer is asked to solve a puzzle, a riddle, which is a hermeneutic, interpretative, process, if you like. The theme is also central to my fake-butterflies and fish-tank boxes, where the optical illusion prompts a reflection on the deceptive nature of perception – incidentally, the word “illusion” comes from Latin “illudere”, which, in turn, comes from the word “ludus”, meaning “play”. Some of my object-rebus boxes come with what we may want to call an embedded “visual solution”; other boxes represent a sentence, often an idiomatic or metaphorical expression – I’ll give you an example: to represent a “sea of tears”, I have depicted tears as rippling waves with tiny origami boats.
Simona Cozzupoli, Amor de Morbo infodemiae temporibus – April 2020
Nature plays a big part in some of your most recent works; would you say the recent pandemic has affected you on a professional level, and perhaps changed the way you look at and represent nature in your artworks?
Yes, that is right, nature has always had a special place in my work.
Between March and April 2020, I made some collages where nature is the main focus. The first I made was a three-dimensional collage titled Mediolanum Morbi temporibus (Latin for Milan at the time of the disease). In this work, the Milan Cathedral – the most famous landmark of the city that was the epicentre of the pandemic in Italy – is seen covered and almost hidden by a lush vegetation to represent the sense of wonder and disorientation we were all experiencing during the lockdown, when time had frozen, and all human activities, including the maintenance of green areas, had been suspended. While we were all locked in our houses, the vegetation was growing undisturbed, almost giving the city a fairy-tale feel.
In other works, which I called Hyppodoptera, I used miniature horses with butterfly wings to represent the microcosm that hides in a meadow. The Hyppodoptera series was also inspired by my lockdown experience, when the vision of unmaintained patches of vegetation made me fantasise about fantastic animals hiding in the greenery.
Out of curiosity, what do you make of the current art scene in Milan?
With its museums, public and commercial galleries, its art and design week, and affordable art fair, Milan is certainly a thriving hotspot for the arts.
Among the Milanese artists I like there is Vanni Cuoghi, whose dreamy paintings are rich in references to the old Masters, and Luigi Serafini, the author of the mysterious and bizarre Codex Seraphinianus, who once called my shadow boxes “beautiful portable poems”.
Another artist I like is Elisa Bollazzi, who, since the early 90s, has been collecting tiny fragments of original artworks – saving them from oblivion – and then mounting them on microscope slides to create her Micro-collections. Since 2008, for her Semine D’Arte (Art Sowings), Bollazzi has been displaying her collections directly on the ground.
What does the future hold in store for you?
Last year, I met Sergio Curtacci, a curator and the editor of Frattura Scomposta Contemporary Art Magazine – a digital art magazine that focuses on the best emerging Italian artists – who offered me a feature in the August 2020 issue. Sergio, who calls himself a “contemporary art storyteller”, is an ardent enthusiast of my work, of which he, in particular, appreciates the conceptual component. When we met in person at Dynamiche Infinite – an exhibition of works by photographer Maurizio Gabbana – we instantly hit it off, and decided to team up to organise an exhibition in Milan, with the support of Frattura Scomposta. Originally scheduled for Spring 2021, the show has now been postponed until Covid restrictions ease.
The exhibition will be held in the smallest deconsecrated church in Milan: it is a very evocative place, and in my opinion, we couldn’t find a more suitable venue to showcase my micro-worlds. The exhibition will include a performance by no other than Janet Park – arguably one of the most important dance performers in the world – who will perform choreography inspired by my very own work. At present, the organisation of this show is my number one priority: I’m letting my imagination run free, and try to visualise the setting up of the exhibition while we wait for the restrictions to be lifted.
Simona Cozzupoli wearing one of her Contemplative Hats
Words and interview by Jacopo Nuvolari