If we were to visit the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens 2,500 years ago, we might have seen Thespis of Icaria playing out one of his tragedies – his voice raised and clear, taut with drama; his face covered by a mask of exaggerated features, a grotesque, unnatural caricature obscuring the man beneath. Masks such as this, known as personae, served a key purpose in the Greek theatre by enabling a single actor to assume multiple personas – male or female, a mythological hero or a lusty satyr. The very act of wearing of the mask was transformative, representative of an assumption or embodiment of another identity. For a Greek audience, the obfuscation of the player beneath was not so much a deception as a shared suspension of disbelief that allowed the actors’ words, not their nature, to express their truth. The mask, an artistic reimagining of nature, was a conduit of that truth.
In the work of Bonafini, Branigan and Drayson we encounter a similar liminality to that which once engaged and excited classical audiences. Each artist engages, in very different ways, with the threshold of transformation: a familiar image or idea re-presented or reimagined.
In Drayson’s 2019 photographic series Effects To Compound Regions, we are presented with a furred leonine character – the artist – whose face is digitally manipulated to become ambiguous. The resulting mutations, masked as they are through distortion, are neither male nor female but a suggestion of both, seemingly caught in a transitionary or transformative state. They emerge from a black ground, their poses mimicking the monumental drama of both baroque sculpture and fashion photography.
Branigan’s practice explores the idea of the vessel – a receptacle that physically contains or transports, or a repository for ideas and beliefs – from prehistoric shells to neolithic pots, scientific illustrations, shopping baskets, infograms and cloud storage. In Ornamental Crime (After G.D. Ehret), 2019 he has taken inspiration from botanical illustrations and bookplates spanning from the 16th century onwards. Even though it is entirely removed from context and obscured by several layers of reproduction, we recognise the flattened aspect and clear illustrative stylings of a copperplate botanical drawing. In an instant, threads of memory pull us back to fixed moments of shared and personal history, all contained within a single image.
Bonafini in turn directly confronts the idea of the mask throughout history and mythology. Her incorporation of adapted traditional craft techniques makes the viewer highly conscious of the artist’s hand at play; the mask is treated as an art object as much as it is a dramatic or representational tool. Her marbled ceramic visages are distorted or malformed, like images in a dream that slip away as we try to reach for the memory of them. There is a sense of the relic to them, a notion that if we were to peer through their empty eyes we might catch a glimpse of the face that long ago wore it. Perhaps a warrior, a child, a court jester or an actor.
Each of these artists is conscious of how an image or motif is loaded with a cultural and historical context, and how a contemporary audience reads images as fluently as words. In this way, the imagery and iconography of Greek theatre, and indeed each artistic movement developed in the centuries since, are as present in popular culture and understanding now as when Thespis of Icaria first donned his mask. Bonafini, Branigan and Drayson use this knowledge to deftly play the audience, to lead us gently, revealing and unmasking layers of truth.
Can you tell us about the process of making your work?
Bea Bonafini: I try to respond to exhibition spaces before deciding which path to take, so that the work has a direct intimacy with the space it’s made for. I like to think of a show as a world you step into, so that the work, the architecture and the history of the space has a cohesive meaning. I’ll often work on many pieces at once, and in different mediums, so that they natural cross-fertilize and grow together. Drawing and writing is a good place to start, followed by messing around with materials, trying out compositions and following the path of those that seem the least comfortable or known.
Frances Drayson: My work is multi-disciplinary and involves sculpture, installation, video, drawing, painting. It includes digital production and editing of sound and images. Some strands of my practice are very expedient and fast-paced, others much longer.
Rob Branigan: It varies, but I keep to formulas and ideas that reoccur, that I return to after weeks or months of being apart, always building on them, adding, sidestepping or expanding. I think you can see this through the history of my work, despite physically, the form changing.
How would you define your work in a few words (ideally in 3 words)?
B. Bonafini: Intimate, Tactile, Multilayered
R. Branigan: A partisan of Things.
‘Effects To Compound Regions’ is your new photographic series; could you share with us some details about this body of work and how is it related to ‘The Mask of Dionysus’ group exhibition.
F. Drayson: The series is pushing at boundaries between categories, such as animal and human or night and day. The titling itself refers to a time code and to the process of manipulating isolated parcels of data in computer software. I noticed that the terminologies of many of the programs I use could also be metaphors for emotional states and body parts as much as data. Certain editing processes could be metaphors for assimilation and reinforcement of social structures to an individual/s. The original images were heavily edited in order to manipulate features and fragment body parts, creating a hyper-stylised and theatrical series of figures. Poses, lighting and costume were influenced by multiple time periods in European history: paintings, cinema and fashion, as well as the clear theatrical reference of the group exhibition.
As it is mentioned in the press release of the ‘The Mask of Dionysus’ exhibition, the ‘Ornamental Crime (After G.D. Ehret)’ has taken inspiration from botanical illustrations and bookplates spanning from the 16th century onwards. Could you share with us some thoughts about how do you perceive, as an artist, the correlation of your artworks with this multidimensional exhibition?
R. Branigan: The series of works of mine in the show have a lot to do with perception. They are, like a lot of recent works of mine, based off illustrations; diagrams, or visual containers of information. I wanted to raise questions that seek to undo the naivety of the botanical illustration, to acknowledge its beauty but also that it is steeped in a historical terrain of imperial control and power. It takes the lemon and their sharp acidity in every sense, their relationship to the ornament as they are presented hanging for the viewer, their very being as an object. Much like my re-working of botanical illustrations, the altering of material and form to portray a new way of thinking about an object to the viewer, the starting point for the exhibition is the use of masks in ancient greek theatre ; allowing the actor to transform, to re-present themselves in different situation, not through deception but shared belief.
What about the place where you work? What’s your studio space like, and how does it affect your process?
B. Bonafini: Because my work is so affected by architecture and space, my studio does have a huge impact on me. Right now for my residency at the British School at Rome, I’m given a gorgeous bright studio with incredibly tall ceilings and skylight windows, so it’s encouraging me to stretch into its heights.
R. Branigan: I have a studio in Purfleet, in Essex. It’s a commute from where I live in Peckham, but allows me space that I couldn’t find let alone afford within London. I’m very fortunate that the space doesn’t affect my process – as yet, I haven’t found myself limited there, and the intensity that comes from being out of the city with no distractions, looking over the Dartford Crossing, has proven to be useful.
What do you hope audiences will take from your work?
B. Bonafini: I hope the work creates a space of comfort that slows down the visitor’s normal consumption of an artwork, so they are inclined to spend time with it, and that subsequently they’re able to access things they couldn’t see to begin with. Sometimes my work is quite monumental, I hope the visitor can become an active element in the piece.
R. Branigan: I am trying to create sculptures that engage the viewer, that ask them questions rather than provide answers, that explore the contingencies of interpretation and exude ideas rather than perform them.
What are your plans for the near future?
B. Bonafini: I will be in three group shows at the BSR in Rome in December, March and June, and I have a solo exhibition at Nevven gallery in Gothenburg in April, the rest is still a mystery!
R. Branigan: I’m working on a collaborative project with Finbar Ward, an artist I studied and worked with a number of years ago, in residence at Standpoint Gallery in Hoxton, with an opening in mid-January.
© All images are courtesy of Brooke Benington