THE MASK OF DIONYSUS: Bea Bonafini, Rob Branigan and Frances Drayson at Brooke Benington's Viewing Room

Review by Harriet Foyster

The title of Brooke Benington’s first online exhibition casts us back to scenes of ancient drama. It reminds us of Dionysus’ namesake theatre in Athens, supposedly the first theatre ever built. The site is regarded as the birthplace of Tragedy but in our present moment, as the globe teeters on the edge of many crises, perhaps tragedy feels like an all too easy place to begin. 

The Mask of Dionysus, then, sets us in motion. It conjures imagery of theatricality, performance and acting. It suggests movement in many forms; actors moving on a stage, plot developing through narrative, even temporal transition from Ancient Greece to present day. Lively connotations are to be expected after all, since Dionysus was the god of theatre, frenzy and vegetation, as well as wine. So when we consider the show in a context not only of acting but ‘action’, the works in The Mask of Dionysus offer something quite surprising.

On first viewing it appears as though someone has pressed pause on each contribution, freezing the works in a single moment of their existence. The hair, the fruit, the fur - these motifs of perishable life forms are no longer subject to nature’s laws or to the degeneration brought about by the passing of time. They stand perfectly still, preserved, and depict a transformation of life into image. One might say the opposite of theatre: to fix instead of to animate. Not to inject life into the shell of a character, but to make relics or remnants of living. Despite the soft music playing in the background of the video, the show has an incredible silence to it. It is in this sense that it conveys the rigidity of a snapshot as opposed to the motion of theatre.

Rob Branigan’s forged steel lemons have been freshly picked and lack life-giving roots yet manage to maintain their firm form and bright colour. The fruit in his photograph Yield II has already fallen to the ground but refuses to decompose. Bea Bonafini’s masks are caught mid-blink, eyelids half open in the awkward squint of a subject who wasn’t quite ready for the camera. The figures in Frances Drayson’s photographic series stand precariously balanced, baring grins and grimaces that couldn’t possibly be held for long in reality. Their contorted states declare them freeze-frames. The works sit in a peculiar space somewhere after animation and before disintegration, in keeping with the titular reference to Dionysus: he was also said to be a communicant between the living and the dead, and so familiar with this threshold state.

Then, upon closer inspection, we realise that in fact the works have not been paused at all, but were never alive to begin with. Branigan’s steel work Ornamental Crime (After G. D. Ehret) takes the unadulterated vitality of a fruit tree and flattens it into a prop. Whilst retaining a three-dimensional form, his stylisation nods to illustration on paper or botanical copper plates, heavy with the presence of the artist’s hand, and therefore intention. The shock of yellow from the spray-painted lemons screams of artificiality, of preservatives or E104. Synthetic hair sprouts from Bonafini`s Peeling Off and Always Let Me Go that hang from the wall as would accessories in a department store: ‘eye level is buy level.’ Drayson’s photographic pair Effects To Compound Regions At… evoke a similar contrived feeling: the poses have been created, not captured. The creature-character that had seemed so ready to burst with life appears superimposed onto its flat background, and so is pushed into the language of the still image via tropes of product photography.

And as well as the sum of its parts, the exhibition itself seems to be playing at life. Despite convincing photography and a video that offers viewers a roaming eye on the curation of works, The Mask of Dionysus is only actually viewable online: it is wearing its own mask of vitality. By performing its own liveliness, it is engaging in an act of trickery - or rather acting - just like the masked actors at the Theatre of Dionysus. In so doing, the exhibition quickly exposes the power of the image as a site of performance, and perhaps gently asks us to always look at things twice. 

Harriet Foyster is an artist and writer from the UK currently living and working in Amsterdam. 

Images in order of appearance:

1. The Mask of Dionysus, the online only exhibition at Brooke Benington featuring work by Bea Bonafini, Rob Branigan and Frances Drayson

2. Rob Branigan 
Citrus Limon (After A. Stahl), 2019 
Forged steel, spray paint
60 x 20 x 20 

3. Rob Branigan 
Yield II, 2019
Digital C-Type Print (Framed)
53 x 45 cm
Edition 1 of 5

4. Bea Bonafini
Peeling Off, 2019 
Part-glazed vulcan stoneware, porcelain, synthetic 
30 x 20 

5. Frances Drayson
Effects to Compound Regions at 00:01:01, 2019
Inkjet print mounted on 3mm Dibond with 18mm aluminium subframe, UV sprayed
150 x 135 x 2 cm
Edition 1 of 3

All images courtesy of the artists and Brooke Benington