Arts Desk

Brian Dailey on the Palette of American Politics

Dailey book cover

The book America in Color by Washington-based artist Brian Dailey will be released at ARTBOOK stores at Art Basel Miami in December. The volume features photographs of ordinary Americans Dailey met during extensive travels across the United States, each posed in front of a color that encapsulates their political orientation: red for Republican, blue for Democrat, green for Green, gray for Independent, and yellow for a nonvoter.

Dailey says the project began by taking portraits in his studio of visitors, friends, and tradespeople. He then expanded the project to explore the role of bias and stereotypes across the country. He traveled to rural and urban areas over nearly two years.

Dailey’s interest in art began at 15, initially with photography and sculpture. He received a Masters of Fine Arts from Otis Art Institute of Los Angeles in 1975. During the 1970s, he exhibited in galleries and museums in Los Angeles, mainly showing conceptual and performance artwork. He continued working as an artist until 1983, when he transitioned into a career in arms-control and international-security policy. He received a Ph.D. in International Relations at the University of Southern California and worked in the policy world for the next 25 years, including positions with the White House's National Space Council, the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Naval Postgraduate School, and Lockheed Martin. He returned to art full time in 2009.

I talked to Dailey about the origins and execution of America in Color, and what he learned from it.

Washington City Paper: How has your artistic career intersected, and coexisted, with your professional career in government and management?

Brian Dailey: There is art in politics and politics in art. Throughout my life two passions stimulated my curiosity: art and international affairs. The tension between the two fields fueled my intense inquiry into these seemingly diametrically opposed professional fields. Whatever success I have had in government and business I attribute much of it to the creative training in art school. The competition of ideas has its foundation in creative thinking. Whether it is art, government policymaking, or business, the power of observing people and society is fundamental to one’s effectiveness. In the context of my career, the wanderings through a labyrinth of artistic and intellectual encounters provided a lifetime of eclectic experiences, which, in turn, supplied a bounty of material for my art.

WCP: What do you see as the pitfalls of trying to mix art and politics?

BD: Some people in the art world believe that all art is political. While I disagree with that premise, artists historically used political and social themes as the subject for their work. My work also leverages politics and social themes. That said, I find that people are generally uncomfortable with political or social narratives in art. I find this attitude less true with younger than older viewers.

WCP: How did you seek out people to participate in the project? Was it easy to get people to take part?

BD: Once I took the project out of the studio environment, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York were the first places we visited. These were all very good venues but they lacked a balance of political diversity. In all, we traveled more than 20,000 miles, through more than 35 states. The major challenge, however, was asking people about their party affiliation. For many, it would appear easier to ask them for their social security number than party affiliation. There was a perception of intolerance by the extreme factions of the parties.

WCP: How extensive were your interactions with your subjects? Did anyone’s reactions surprise you?

BD: That depended upon how busy we were during the shoots. If time allowed, I did talk to people about their political and social views. Although it was not unexpected, I was still taken aback by some of the inveterate positions of people and their resistance to the idea of interacting with individuals of different political points of view. In short, many individuals showed no inclination to engage in a political dialogue unless it reinforced their own ideas.

WCP: Once you had the raw materials—the photographs—how did you go about arranging them? Was there an obvious order to them?

BD: The most important goal of the project was to reflect the broad ethnic, social and political diversity of America. Here's some of the data from the book: While the more than 1,200 portraits that constitute this series were based on chance encounters, they resulted—unexpectedly—in a statistical distribution that mirrors the range of the electorate at large. Of those who said they vote, approximately 35 percent declared they were Independent, 33 percent Democratic and 30 percent Republican, and 2 percent Green party. In the case of people who declared that they did not or could not vote (yellow) the number was approximately 10 percent out of the 1,200. From an ethnic and racial perspective, of those who voted in 2012, 72 percent were white, 13 percent black, 10 percent Hispanic, and 3 percent Asian American. These numbers are also remarkably close to the demographics of the series. With that in mind, the objective was to portray the diversity of these individuals against a backdrop of various political affiliations.

WCP: To what extent could you guess people’s political affiliations before you knew what color they chose for their background?

BD: I stopped trying to predict people’s political affiliations early in the project. I was one of the early students in learning that you can’t assume, let alone fall into to the trap of stereotyping people. That lesson drove the ultimate concept for this artwork: to explore the individual and uncelebrated American electorate and its political diversity, identity and the character of our democracy.

WCP: Are you bothered by the state of American politics these days?

BD: How can one not be? Given the serious issues we face, the dysfunction is detrimental to our country.

WCP: Now that you have completed the project, what lessons did you take away?

BD: I was most taken with, and pleased to feel, the diversity of America. Through the use of portraiture, America in Color highlights the diversity of individuals that make up our democracy and, in the process, I hope it will make us want to engage each other with an open mind and willingness to listen.

 

America in Color is available for advance purchase through the distributor, Artbook D.A.P., or Amazon.com. A new series of his photographic work is showing at the Stephan Stoyanov Gallery in New York City to Dec. 20.

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