Brian Dailey: Challenging Our Instincts

From "America in Color," Brian Dailey. | Courtesy of the artist.

When picturing the model of a contemporary artist, a background in international security and arms control is not likely to be among the essential qualifications one might envision. But [Brian Dailey]( defies conventions as an artist and as an individual, and so it is that his wide-ranging projects persistently challenge the very nature of preconception.

Based in the Washington area, Dailey is an internationally recognized talent, with recent exhibits that include a career retrospective at the National Art Gallery in Sofia, Bulgaria; a major acquisition by the Phillips Collection; and a month-long installation that lit up the electronic billboards across Times Square. His work is currently on display at three venues throughout the city.

So it may come as a surprise that, after a twenty-five year career detour, he only returned less than ten years ago to making art.

Dailey’s art career formally began in 1970s Los Angeles, a fertile but often overlooked moment in American art history. The period produced significant postwar artists such as John Baldessari, Robert Irwin, Ed Ruscha and James Turrell, and nurtured a community of pioneering installation and performance artists who redefined the boundaries of fine art.

However, disenchanted by the shallow political machinations of the art industry, which rewarded artists who crystalized their work into singular, identifiable brands (think Roy Lichtenstein), the young Dailey shifted his efforts toward a veritable political Leviathan: The Cold War.

Dailey pursued a Ph.D. in international relations and became a leading expert in Soviet strategic defense. Over 25 years, he held positions with the Senate Armed Services Committee, the National Space Council and Lockheed Martin.

Intending to return to art in the future, he approached this new work with the same dogged curiosity that informed his creative practice, abiding by a zen-like motto: “There is art in politics and politics in art.” In 2008, he returned to art full-time.

His first project to draw major national attention was [“America in Color,”]( a series of 1,200 portraits across 22 states. Stopping at coal mines, ranches, shopping malls and public spaces, Dailey photographed a staggering diversity of people, having each subject choose a colored backdrop for their portrait that aligned with their political affiliation: blue for Democrats, red for Republicans and so on.

He then unveiled the project amidst the polarizing 2012 election season.

It may seem like this would weave a cynical, politically divisive narrative, but “America in Color” is nothing of the kind. A seasoned rancher with a gun in his holster braces his shoulders against a bold Democrat blue. A black woman stands proudly before a wall of red, her puckish grin suggesting that “you probably didn’t see this coming, did you?”

“It is that reaction to these portraits that surfaces the question of whether we have progressed away from personal biases, or whether perception is still many people’s reality,” Dailey says.

“America in Color” is a moving photographic mosaic of American humanity, which affectionately captures the spirit of the individual against the typically corrosive backdrop of contemporary politics.

The series is all the more relevant now, which makes it thrilling to see a selected installation at the Beacon Building, 601 New Jersey Ave. NW, just down the street from the Supreme Court and the Capitol.

“We perceive what we think is the world. We stereotype,” says Dailey. “But this is a story of American politics as a group of humans and individuals — the subjects in the photos as well as the viewers. No matter how much we think we’re open-minded, you’re looking at one of those portraits and you’re saying, ‘I can’t believe that.’”

That interaction between art and audience is a critical aspect to Brian’s work. He has referred to himself as a performance artist who creates environments in which others perform.

“You can’t be a passive viewer of Brian’s work,” says Wendy Grossman, a curatorial associate at the Phillips Collection. “He provokes people, creating meaning in their involvement. You’re not told what the conclusion should be, so you become actively engaged in his creative process.”

Further punctuating this idea is his 2013 video work [“Jikai,”]( which was acquired last year by [The Phillips Collection](, where it is currently on view.

On the one hand, “Jikai” is very simple. A white moth flits around a single burning lightbulb. And yet I have watched its oriental simplicity envelop audiences in meditative clouds. The moth reflexively performs its masochistic, Tchaikovskian dance of attraction against the searing light, its buzzing wings like radio static. The red background pulses somewhere between beauty and alarm, a sentiment that the Tourettic creature echoes in its frantic collisions with the lightbulb.

As an audience, we begin to consider the moth. We wonder about its attraction to the lightbulb; we worry for it. The empathy we feel exists because the moth is real, however low a form of life. We are watching a creature hurting itself, and our instincts tell us this is wrong. And — “Thus hath the candle singed the moth” — so, too, do we walk away with an ache in our hearts.

It is difficult to write about Dailey’s work without using some form of editorial pronoun, because you ultimately begin to feel like you are a part of it. His third piece currently on view, a print from his series “Riddles,” catches you inescapably in its grip.

[“Riddle 1”]( is a 2015 inkjet print on view at a Dupont Circle pop-up gallery at 2112 R St. NW, hosted by Andrea Pollan through her [Curator’s Office]( gallery (identified by Vanity Fair as an important player in “The Art Universe”).

“I am drawn to Brian’s singular vision and intellect,” says Pollan. “He draws on modernist traditions in his paintings and works on paper. They are visually lush but require a particular decoding that recalls early Renaissance religious symbolism in a very contemporary manner. It has a mystery and even a dark humor.”

Unlike, “America In Color” and “Jikai,” Dailey’s “Riddles” are seemingly indecipherable visual puzzles of colored lines and letters that come with encryption keys — themselves a maze of philosophical allusions. He seems to think these are puzzles to be solved, but this writer is content to admire their formal beauty and get lost in their thick fog of mystery.

However, the works do harken to a sentiment voiced by Winston Churchill, who, characterizing its unpredictability, said of Russia: “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.”

Perhaps. Unfortunately, Mr. Dailey is the only who has mastered the art of Russian obfuscation.

Above all else, Dailey is an observer, creating art that functions as an incubator for his audience’s cultural, political, internal or physical perceptions. To put it simply, Dailey’s work is remarkably engaging.

This is a reflection of his person. I’ve never met an artist more interested in discussing not just his work, but the thoughts and feelings it inspires in others. He builds environments that trigger our preconceptions, challenge our instincts and force us to confront our ignorance.

Through a career spent deciphering political discourse, it seems that Dailey has connected profoundly with the human equation of even the most fractious global politics. But unlike so much political art of modern history, Dailey’s work is not proscriptive. He does not employ his medium to communicate a personal agenda, but rather to foster dialogues about those very things we struggle to discuss and identify within ourselves. Far from political, I would call his work deeply humanist, veiled in an armature of political inquisition.

And as we approach the most alienating and discordant election in modern American history, Dailey’s work becomes a harrowing reflection of our country’s condition. We are human beings with deep personal beliefs that we present as political determination. But that is not who we are. We are simply ourselves, confronting the world and each other. And through Dailey’s work we can see that it might do us all a bit of good to stop trying to be sure of everything we know, to open our eyes and to truly attempt to see.

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