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Adriana Napolitano Blends Pop, Surrealism, and Humor in Her Work

By Jenny Carless

When most of us consider a piece of paper, we might think of it as something to write or draw on. Maybe a paper airplane, if we’re feeling creative. Adriana Napolitano sees London, Rome, a rose, an eggplant—even sushi. It’s her vivid imagination—buoyed by skill she has honed since childhood—that makes her whimsical paper creations so enticing.

“As with any material you work with, you have to know it—to know what you can and can’t do with it,” the Berlin-based artist says. “There are so many ways to use paper. I love that I can still be surprised by other people’s work and wonder, ‘Whoa! How did they do that?’”

It’s about knowing the potential of the medium, Napolitano says. “It’s such an ‘easy’ material; everyone has it at home. But it has so much potential! It’s surprising, don’t you think?”

The fact that her art is derived from such an “ordinary” material makes us look at her representations of everyday items—from fruits and vegetables to birds and tools—with a fresh eye.

Napolitano creates intricate paper sculptures by hand, as well as working in other media. 

She cuts most of her projects, even an intricate representation of London, by hand—turning to a cutting machine only for very repetitive small shapes and motives, such as when she needs large quantities of dots or stripes, for example. After all, the pleasure comes from creating something from nothing: “One moment you have a lot of cardboard, and the next you have a giant Jeep toy,” she says.

An intricate project like London can take a week or more to create, depending on the size, the subject, and whether it involves moving parts.

About her paper creations, she says, “The most challenging part is to design it—thinking about every aspect and planning the work,” she says. “Then comes the fun!”

THINKING IN PICTURES

Napolitano’s work extends to photography and set design. Just as she doesn’t tie herself to one medium, her style is eclectic, too.

“You can take some pop, some surrealism, and some craftsmanship, and put them in a blender. Add a pinch of humor, and that describes my style,” she says.

She is fortunate to have—or perhaps plagued by having, depending on how she feels from one day to another—an endless series of ideas bouncing around in her head at all times.

“I easily think in pictures,” she says. “With so many running around in my mind, I feel lucky when I can focus on one and make it real.”

Her inspiration comes most often from everyday things: objects, feelings, situations. “They are nothing special, really; I just look at them in a certain way, I suppose,” she says.

But it’s not always an easy process to go from an idea through visualization and on to realization of an art piece. “I don’t know if I’m a perfectionist,” she says, “but I do cry a lot, that’s for sure.”

SURREALIST PHOTOGRAPHY

Napolitano has always loved surrealism. “It speaks to me—and I think it’s a very fertile ground for my imagination,” she says.

Her interest in movement and style inspired an ongoing series of self-portraits called Body Mo(o)d (shown above). Napolitano adds that, paradoxically, although she often works with self-portraits, she is very shy.

“This project is all about my need to show some feelings,” she explains. “I usually go for bright colors and humorous self-portraits. But with this venture, I wanted to challenge myself to show another part of me: the less fun, the more vulnerable. It was hard; I often use irony as a shield.”

Each image has a different workflow. In the long neck, for example, after setting the lights, Napolitano shot different portraits with different neck positions and then merged them all together in Adobe Photoshop CC with help from masks and the Clone Stamp tool.

She began this project at a time when she felt very low, and it made her feel better.

“Everyone should find their own way to express those hard feelings,” she says. “You just have to look for what’s right for you.”

SET DESIGN

One of Napolitano’s favorite recent projects was the set design for a music video for “Stasera” (Tonight), a song by Martina May. She created four different rooms, in four different colors and styles, as locations for the singer.

The sets are built mostly from paper, but also cardboard, fabric, wire, “and anything I could find,” she says.

The singer and director wanted to shoot Martina singing in her own home, alone—but they wanted more than a classic playback around an empty house. So they asked Napolitano for ideas to spice things up—to come up with a cool location to make the video really pop.

“They asked about adding some paper props, and I suggested building the locations from scratch,” she says. “We opted to make every room a single color—to build a unique mansion for Martina, inspired by music videos like the one for “Say My Name” by Destiny’s Child. We decided to go from the ’50s (the kitchen) to the ’90s (the bathroom), and we coordinated her supercool outfits with the main color—and there it was, Martina’s million-dollar house!” 

GETTING HER HANDS DIRTY

Napolitano’s art—whether in paper, photography, or set design, comes from a tradition of family craft, beginning when she created nativity scenes in papier mâché with her grandfather as a child. (She still remembers the smell of the homemade glue.)

Today, while she loves every part of her work—from concept through the creation and on to the postproduction—if she has to choose a favorite aspect, it’s the building.

“I love getting my hands dirty: playing with different materials, touching things, being focused on not ruining days of work with errors,” she says. “It’s cathartic—and fun. I feel like an inventor!”

Find more of Napolitano’s work on her website, Behance, and Adobe Stock, where she makes her work available as a premium contributor.