To Look Is To Think: A Conversation with Brian Dailey
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To Look Is To Think:
A Conversation with Brian Dailey

The specter of nuclear destruction has haunted artists since the dawn of the atomic age. For the generation of artists who came of age during the Cold War, the atomic mushroom cloud was a symbol that encapsulated the angst of an era. Whereas artists have responded to this frightening sense of impending nuclear doom in a variety of ways, Brian Dailey brings a singular perspective to this discourse, from the viewpoint of an artist who was once deeply embedded in the world he addresses and redresses in his creative practice. Indeed, his unusual background as both an artist and an arms control specialist affords him a rare insider’s view into the world of nuclear politics and policy-making through his inventive engagement with nuclear iconography.

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Based in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, Dailey is a quintessential polymath. His versatility across a range of artistic mediums—including photography, film, installation, and painting—draws upon his multifaceted life experience, as well as his unconventional evolution as an artist, in order to address urgent social, political, and cultural issues. Our conversation with the artist explores various facets of his creative vision, focusing on his recent Lamentations series—a meditation in two and three dimensions on nuclear theology, nuclear deterrence, and the implications of the continuing arms race in our atomic age. [End Page 49]

In his works in the Lamentations series—whether on canvas, paper, glass, or Plexiglass or constructed in granite, steel, plastic, or wood—Dailey takes on the role of witness and provocateur to challenge viewers to think the unthinkable: namely, the imminence and planetary scale of a nuclear holocaust. His artwork is based not on vague abstractions, but on hard and verifiable facts, figures, and government strategic plans. Encapsulated in titles such as The Delicate Balance of Terror, From Crossbow to H-Bomb, and Dichotomy of Barbarity, the artist enfolds his message in complex imagery—secular and biblical—inspired by the concept and taxonomies of lamentation. Indeed, the theology of destruction and exile that undergirds and informs the biblical Book of Lamentations finds its secular reflection in Dailey’s works from this series.

Dailey’s specialist background in arms control policy makes him one of the very few contemporary artists equipped to address the uneasy world balance of nuclear arms with such subtlety and insight. As a student at Otis Art Institute (MFA, 1975) and in his ensuing career in Los Angeles, Dailey participated in the pioneering art scene that gave rise to West Coast conceptual, performance, and activist art during the seventies. As a gallery assistant at Ace Gallery, he had the opportunity to work with such artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Donald Judd, Michael Heizer, Andy Warhol, and Sam Francis. Dailey’s own experimental artwork during this time included painting, sculpture, and performance art, reflecting the pluralistic forms of creative expression and political and social engagement that marked this period.

Seeking a fuller understanding of global challenges and potential solutions to global instability during the Cold War, Dailey took a sabbatical from his art-making in the 1980s to study international relations at the University of Southern California (PhD, 1987). He set off on a twenty-five year interlude to work on arms control and international security in government and in the private sector before returning to his roots as an artist. These experiences provide a fertile source of inspiration for his idiosyncratic creative practice. As the artist states,

There is art in politics and politics in art. Throughout life two passions stimulated my curiosity: art and international politics. The tension between two interests generated intense inquiry into these seemingly diametrically opposed professional fields. In the context of my career, the wanderings through a labyrinth of artistic and intellectual [End Page 50] encounters provided a lifetime of eclectic experiences, which, in turn, supplied a bounty of material for making art.

With two-and-a-half decades of in-depth engagement with the issues my current work addresses, I am able to explore them with direct experience and knowledge. In...