This essay is reprinted with the permission of Dr. Daniel Haxall and the Freedman Art Gallery at Albright College, Reading, Pennsylvania. It first appeared in the gallery’s catalog for STATE: Obvious / Not So (selected works, 1973-present) in 2019. It was subsequently published by the Sordoni Art Gallery at Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, 2022.
DAN R. TALLEY – STATE: OBVIOUS / NOT SO (SELECTED WORKS, 1973-PRESENT)
The word “retrospective” often describes an exhibition that charts the trajectory of an artist’s career, providing an overview of that person’s interests and development. Creating a retrospective on the oeuvre of Dan R. Talley, and more particularly, writing about it, proved challenging for a number of reasons. First, over the past ten years he has entered what is arguably his most prolific phase as an artist, and we lack the benefit of historical distance to fully appreciate the scope and context of this recent work. This retrospective would be very different if staged in five or ten years as he continues to evolve in surprising ways. Second, Talley’s output in the arts extends beyond traditional “making,” as he has worked as a critic, curator, editor, educator, and gallery director. His studio practice includes painting, performance, photography, and video, drawing upon such disparate influences as Abstract Expressionism, Conceptualism, Minimalism, and Postmodernism. As such, the title of this retrospective, State: Obvious / Not So, is appropriate. “State” denotes a quality of being at a particular time, and the word is also used to describe a moment within a printing or editing process. Of course, the word also functions as a verb, to declare or articulate, synonyms for the work of the artist. This show, and the accompanying essay, records the current “state” of Talley’s artistic practice as well as its various states over nearly fifty years. His efforts to state lead in obvious, and not so obvious, directions, while the artistic statements themselves communicate in similarly dynamic ways.
AN EMERGING STATE
Dan R. Talley was born in Hogansville, Georgia, a small town approximately sixty miles southwest of Atlanta and twenty miles east of the Alabama border. His family moved to Atlanta when he was five years old and, with the exception of weekends spent at his maternal grandmother’s house in rural Hogansville, Talley was raised and educated in the city, earning his BFA from the Atlanta College of Art in 1973. His early work reflects the impact of Abstract Expressionism, as Talley studied painting with Edward Ross at the Atlanta College of Art less than two decades after the death of Jackson Pollock. However rather than Pollock, Talley gravitated towards the calligraphic markings of Mark Tobey, while his interest in painterly surface paralleled Robert Rauschenberg’s critical reflections on Willem de Kooning’s “Tenth Street Touch.” Talley admitted, “The emotional content of Abstract Expressionism seemed a bit false to me,” and his work from this period diverged from the New York School in several ways. In his untitled paintings from 1973 (H01), Talley’s use of unconventional materials, including sand, string, and twigs, challenged the unified picture plane championed by prominent critic Clement Greenberg. Where Greenberg advocated pictorial flatness and purity of artistic means, Talley explored tactility and diverse materials.
The formats and haptic properties of these early paintings recall the Constructivism of Kasimir Malevich and material lessons taught by Hans Hofmann at the Bauhaus. In addition to these modernist influences, geometric abstraction appealed to Talley as he set the Abstract Expressionist mark against the clarity of the grid (H02), a device embraced by the Minimalists prominent at the time. Irregular surface features, such as the application of sand and sawdust to the canvas, introduce an element of chance to painterly systems governed by axial regularity, devices common among the avant-garde from Hans Arp to John Cage.
The legacy of Jackson Pollock, according to artist Allan Kaprow, extended beyond painting into the lived realm, and Talley’s engagement with Performance and Conceptual art in the early 1970s aligned with Kaprow’s vision. Not content to participate solely in the fabrication of art, he staged a variety of interventions outside the “white cube” of the gallery. In Accept / Do Not Accept (1974) (H03 A&B), Talley distributed flyers outside an office building in downtown Atlanta during the lunch hour. On the first of two consecutive days, the artist handed out broadsheets that simply stated, “Do Not Accept this Sheet of Paper,” while on the second, the handout instructed passersby, “Accept this Sheet of Paper.” Talley charted the performance, recording how the public more readily accepted the sheet printed with the command, “Do Not Accept this Sheet of Paper.”
Those handouts were distributed in 38 minutes compared to the 51 minutes it took to disseminate the print emblazoned with “Accept this Sheet of Paper,” potentially revealing a human attraction towards that which is taboo or forbidden. Talley’s admiration for John Baldessari is apparent in Accept / Do Not Accept, as Baldessari famously instructed museum goers not to look at his work (This Is Not To Be Looked At, 1966-68). Simultaneously a reversal of expectations and challenge to civility, Talley’s project critiqued the commodification of art through “limited editions” since 100 flyers were produced, and the public often failed to recognize Talley’s gesture.
The project First World Brain Bank (1972-73) (H04) was one of several collaborations with close friend Stan Sharshal and another example of Talley reconsidering the institutions upholding high culture. The activities of this “multifaceted, specific organization” included inviting participants at a lighting trade fair to share a drink with the artists at their booth, as well as soliciting artists to “deposit” art for an exhibition at the Atlanta College of Art via mail. Participants in the latter project included Lawrence Weiner, resulting in a varied assortment of objects and ephemera described by one observer as a “freak Smithsonian.” Whether staging discourses on art outside conventional art spaces, or rethinking curatorial practices via mail art, Talley’s projects from the early 1970s reflect the type of “institutional critique” Benjamin Buchloh located within conceptual practices following 1969. 
As such, Talley not only critiqued the administrative necessities upholding arts institutions, he reconsidered the activities and practices of the artist, part of a broader reexamination of artistic labor that characterized the postwar American avant-garde . In a series of short videos from 1974, Talley embraced the nascent medium of video to document a series of intimate yet enigmatic performances. Re-enacted in 2006 due to the deteriorating video quality of his original recordings, these films follow a uniform format: the camera zooms in closely on Talley’s face, shot from beneath the eyes to include his mouth, while he relays personal anecdotes.
In I wanted to say … (1974/2006) (H05), he shares a story about learning to talk without moving his face as a child. Despite his proficiency in doing just that, Talley admits during the short film that several words proved impossible to enunciate without altering his mouth and he failed to meet his objective. As such, a highly developed albeit unusual and potentially useless skill ultimately was bound by the limits of communication.
In a similar way, Talley establishes parameters limiting his ability to speak clearly in his Artificial Alteration of Articulation (1974/2006). The artist enunciates the words, “artificial alteration of articulation,” itself a mouthful of alliteration, before inserting one small stone into his mouth. Repeating the phrase, Talley adds a second stone, and then a third, and continues this practice until his mouth is completely full of rocks and he is unable to close his lips or clearly utter the original statement. Both examples recall the pioneering video work of Vito Acconci, whose Open Book (1974) featured Acconci sharing personal narratives while speaking without closing his mouth, thus thwarting his ability to enunciate and connect with the viewer. Talley worked with Acconci during an installation at the Atlanta Art Workers Coalition in 1980, and he similarly turns the video camera on himself in these performances, documenting the “work” of the artist while he struggles to communicate his experiences. These projects make the viewer deeply uncomfortable, as we watch Talley place more and more rocks into his mouth and potentially risk choking while doing so.
A PHOTOGRAPHIC STATE
While much of Talley’s early work aligned him with practices born from “action” painting, whether the literal activity of painting or performing in the arena beyond the canvas, his artistic training and interests included photography as well. He found inspiration in the diverse photographic work of Hilla and Bernd Becher, Man Ray, Diane Arbus, Gary Winogrand, Walker Evans, John Baldessari, and many others. The early photographs reveal Talley’s efforts to master the medium while establishing his own personal aesthetic.
For example, AWOL (1972) (H06) presents a haunting image of an emaciated figure with outstretched arms resembling the crucifixion of Christ. The sacrifice suggested in the image intensifies after learning the context of the photo as it captures a United States Marine gone AWOL during the height of the Vietnam War, thereby representing the tremendous loss of American lives during the conflict. Other photographs from this period, passengers waiting for the State Island Ferry or abstracted nudes, anticipate a process of discovering through the camera that would later characterize much of Talley’s oeuvre.
Talley’s critical investigation of photography throughout the 1970s included an engagement with mass media imagery as well as the fusion of image and text central to much Conceptual Art.
In the former, Talley grappled with photojournalism through a series of images appropriated from the newspaper, Would have taken / Would not have taken (1974) (H07 A&B). A caption accompanies each newsprint photo indicating that if, “Given the same location and time, I could have taken this photograph.” Beneath this black text an addendum appears in red typescript explaining whether Talley “would have taken” or “would not have taken” these shots. The criteria establishing whether he would, or would not, have taken the photographs remains unclear. Did formal considerations, such as a repetition of closely positioned sunbathers or offset tree flanking the dome of the United State Capitol, prompt his positive affirmation of the images? Did the political machinations of former President Richard Nixon compel Talley to reject an image of Nixon shaking hands with Gerald R. Ford? Where contemporary artists such as Jonathan Hernandez similarly plumb the news media for consistent pictorial motifs — in Hernandez’s case he grouped news photographs by shared formal traits or common visual tropes — Talley considered the values attached to photojournalism, whether aesthetic or political.
At times Talley continued the practice of self-documentation through the camera, however in addition to video recording himself engaged in performance, he also simulated photographs documenting acts of personal collection (Dirt and Lint, both 1972) (LINT=H08). Captions explained that these images reveal the amount of dirt trapped underneath his fingernails for a year or quantity of lint accumulated in his navel throughout a month. The “simulated” nature of these photographs potentially address the absurdity or tautology of some Conceptualism, whether Vito Acconci charting his ability to climb a stool (Step Piece, 1970), Edward Ruscha photographing Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), or Sol LeWitt’s “aporia.”  A wry commentary on art as index, Talley offers photographic facsimiles of materials that contest the veracity of the photographic image. His later work continues to question the camera’s ability to report “truth,” while the simulation of an artist’s archive foreshadowed several recent projects of self-documentation.
Later in the 1970s, Talley fused text with photographic imagery that offered puns about Conceptualism while acknowledging the politics of the day. A Biceptual Artist (1978) presents an image of a woman wearing a tank top while flexing her arm muscles, recasting the canonical female subject as an updated Rosie the Riveter. The strength of the female subject or “artist” is rendered literal, an appropriate metaphor during the height of second-wave feminism. The word “biceptual” now appears in the Urban Dictionary, describing it as a form of self-definition through one’s musculature, particularly through visual preening that draws attention to one’s biceps. T-shirts and tank tops, like the one Talley’s model wears, are available for sale on the internet, while the Urban Dictionary describes the biceptual as one who emphasizes their physique to compensate for inferior intelligence, a reversal of the witty conceptualism that generates much of the strength of Talley’s oeuvre.
Talley continued his studies at the University of Hartford, completing his MFA in 1976, and while many of his video recordings from this period have been lost, several later projects reveal a continued interest in veracity through the use of the camera, both photographic and filmic. In Footloose and … the ties that bind (1977), a six-foot-tall step ladder is spotlighted within a slightly darkened space. Despite being opened for use, and potentially offering maximum stability, one foot is missing from the stepladder which, instead, rests on a copy of the book, Gately’s Universal Education (1883). Intrepid museumgoers are invited to climb the ladder to view the photographic album resting on a suspended platform just above. Illuminated from the ceiling, the album contains images and notations relating to Talley’s life and family history, some of them highly improbable. On the last page, we are informed that the artist’s Uncle Hue died falling from a similar ladder while changing a lightbulb. This unbelievable anecdote is reinforced by a looped audio recording of someone climbing a ladder, losing balance, and crashing to the earth. In a punning manner, the work’s title alludes to familial connections (“the ties that bind”), the alleged fall and incomplete ladder (“footloose”), as well as a popular expression about being unfettered from commitments (“footloose and fancy free”), itself a contradiction with the bonds referenced elsewhere in the title. Did Uncle Hue climb a similarly rickety object, and what is the connection to Gately’s volume? The book itself was an illustrated encyclopedia covering diverse topics such as astronomy, geology, history, physical geography, law, drawing, poetry, and statistics. Designed as a reference work with teachers and the layperson in mind, Gately’s Universal Education represents late Victorian rationalism and a commodification of knowledge that developed during this period’s economic and industrial growth. Yet this endeavor provides a shaky foundation for ascension, with Talley perhaps critiquing the morality and imperialism of the age. Ultimately, the family album and encyclopedia convey the limits of knowledge and precarious foundations undergirding cultural narratives.
Talley continued to explore the idea of cultural constructs in his collaboration with Michelangelo Pistoletto, one of the primary figures in the Italian Arte Povera movement and known for his Venus of the Rags (1967) and use of mirrors in paintings. A commission by the Atlanta Bureau of Cultural Affairs, this project began through a month-long series of dinners where Talley and Pistoletto shared ideas despite major language barriers. The dialogue resulted in the multimedia installation, Dual Language / Language Duel (1980), eighty slides projected onto mirrored mylar in which Talley and Pistoletto alternated positions around each other. At times the two were photographed standing side by side, in other instances one stood behind the other, visually orbiting each other throughout. Their material possessions—glasses, jackets, watches—were exchanged over the course of the presentation, blurring the devices we would typically use to fix each individual’s identity. The replication of the images from mirrored mylar onto the adjacent gallery wall provided another layer of visual confusion as the lucidity of the slides decreased through reflection. Speakers broadcast anecdotes by the artists running simultaneously as they explained their experience working with each other. The contrasting accounts make us consider the constructed nature of cultural identity, while the artists’ efforts to find clarity and integrate ultimately falls short.
AN ORGANIZATIONAL STATE
Talley’s work with prominent artists such as Pistoletto owed much to his multifaceted involvement with the art world throughout his career. While in Hartford in 1975, Talley co-founded Real Art Ways (RAW) with Joseph Celli, Ruth Cutler, and Al Baccili, a commercial building turned into contemporary salon that showcases avant-garde art, music, and film and continues to operate today.  Over the past forty years, events have featured jazz musician Ornette Coleman, avant-garde composers John Cage, Philip Glass, and John Zorn, and celebrated visual artists Laurie Anderson, Louise Bourgeois, Judy Chicago, Christo, Robert Longo, and Cindy Sherman, many of them before they had achieved international fame.  Later highlights include Pepón Osorio’s iconic installation, En la barberia no se llora (No Crying Allowed in the Barbership) (1994), a testament to the foundation laid by Talley and his colleagues in establishing a site for artistic experimentation. The activities organized at RAW galvanized Talley’s belief in curation as art, a form of artistic practice he began with the First World Brain Bank and a practice he would continue upon relocating to Atlanta after graduate school.
There, he became gallery director for the Atlanta Art Workers’ Coalition (AAWC) in 1977, organizing a range of programming and co-editing their newspaper. Another grassroots initiative to foster the arts, the AAWC sought to “promote, protect, and aid the visual artists of Atlanta through programs focused on the need of individual artists and art groups.” This took the form of operating alternative gallery spaces and providing venues for many underrepresented groups in the American Southeast. Under Talley’s direction and his partnership with AAWC director Julia Fenton, The AAWC Newsletter grew into a bimonthly newspaper that continued its focus on arts activities in Atlanta and the Southeast, but now included features on national artists and issues. With Laura Lieberman assuming co-editorial responsibilities with Talley, the journal expanded its Artist to Artist series, wherein dialogue between prominent and aspiring artists were published. The roll call of featured artists remains a who’s who of American art history, including Laurie Anderson, Benny Andrews, Mary Beth Edelson, Donald Kuspit, and Nancy Spero among others. The Atlanta Art Papers split from the AAWC in 1980, eventually becoming renamed Art Papers in 1981. Art Papers remains a critical forum for dialogue about the arts and while Talley eventually stepped away from the journal, its mission continues to reflect his influence and interests. 
In many ways Talley’s artistic trajectory was slowed by his roles as gallery director and journal editor, although these experiences certainly fueled his work once he returned to the studio more regularly. He served as visual arts writer for Atlanta’s weekly newspaper, Creative Loafing, for two years before returning to gallery work in 1987 as gallery director of Nexus, an organization now called the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. For the next two decades, Talley continued contributing to Art Papers and other art journals while curating scores of exhibitions while directing the galleries of Nexus (1987-1989), the Visual Arts Initiative at Jamestown Community College (1989-1996), and Kutztown University (1996-2010). In addition to the exhibitions he organized for these venues, Talley curated four shows that toured or appeared in national venues. Outside the Centers / On the Edge (2006-07) was a collaborative project with the directors of the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design Gallery, Samek Art Gallery of Bucknell University, Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, and Erie Art Museum to create an exhibition that considered how artists negotiate the idea “location” while living on the periphery of major urban art centers. He co-curated another show, Mexico Illuminated (2003), with Chris Youngs, Marilyn Fox, and Robert Metzger, that brought 54 artists and 2 collectives from Mexico to Berks County, Pennsylvania. Programming was staged concurrently at the Reading Public Museum, Penn State Berks, Reading Area Community College, Berks Arts Council, Freedman Gallery of Albright College, and Kutztown University among other venues. The largest exhibition of contemporary Mexican art outside of Mexico, this remarkable exhibition demonstrated Talley’s ability to negotiate complicated logistics and stage events on an international scale. Finally, his prolific output as curator included two exhibitions for the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia. Accelerating Sequence: Artists Consider Time and Aging (2005) featured nine artists in a show that explored the representation of time and its passage, while he co-curated Color, Culture, Complexity (2002) with Ed Spriggs, an exhibition about racial dynamics through the work of eighteen artists. William Christenberry and Clarissa Sigh are just two of the many celebrated individuals he exhibited in these shows.
A POLITICAL STATE
From the 1980s through the 1990s, Talley directed most of his attention to curation and writing, however with his move to Kutztown University in 1996, Talley embarked upon ambitious new work. Considering the types of organizations and journals he helped found and direct, particularly their activist missions, it should not be surprising that Talley often addressed social and political issues in his art. Several of his works from the early 2000s addressed America’s fraught history with guns and the traumas inflicted through such violence. In The Shotgun and I Ching (2000), Talley converted low resolution images of shotgun blast patterns appropriated from the websites of such organizations as the National Rifle Association into targets. He then filled in the bullet holes with color dots selected through the I Ching, the ancient Chinese “Book of Changes” that inspired the chance principles adopted by avant-garde artists and composers including Robert Motherwell and John Cage. The randomness of the color selections suggest the randomness of gun violence and mass shootings, problems that continue to plague America.
In Trace (2002), Talley further explored trauma and the loss of life, developing spare but profound drawings that commented on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 as well as his own mortality as he became the same age as his mother when she passed away. He created this series in a secluded cabin during a residency at the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Science in northern Georgia. He spent his two weeks there engaged in the repetitive activity of drawing, a form of meditation predicated upon abstract notations. In some of these works Talley attempted to create lines as close together as possible without the aid of mechanical devices, or in other instances, he sharpened his lines per revolution of the drawing sheet. As in The Shotgun and I Ching, he selected colors randomly, and the fragility of these works on paper alludes to the fragility of life, while the title, Trace, elegantly describes Talley’s artistic activities in this project and the tragedy of loss. Despite the traumas that inspired these projects, he fondly recalled how, during his residency, “the hours of repetitive, meditative mark-marking brought me [an] extended sense of peace, serenity, and satisfaction I have rarely known.”
Talley returned to Hambidge two years later during a sabbatical, and the resulting work, Truth Emergent (2004), moved from the trauma of 9/11 to the politics and propaganda that followed the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Here, Talley appropriated photographs from the New York Times depicting American military activities in Iraq. These images range from wounded servicemen being carried on stretchers to helicopters and patrolling the Iran-Iraq border with heavy machinery to “insurgents” throwing “Molotov cocktails” at burning tractor trailers. In each of the news images, Talley has isolated a rectilinear section in red lines, a segment away from the major activity within each photo. He then resized these digital files, blowing up the excerpting area to 30×40 inch images. Since the original files were not very high in resolution, the excerpt loses clarity when enlarged, becoming an abstract assortment of Ben-Day dots with no discernible imagery. Talley inserted multiple layers of colors into the photographs, selecting a different color for each massing of Ben-Day dots. The system created to govern this process recalls Sol LeWitt’s mathematical computations and John Cage’s use of chance principles, while the resultant images were born of photography but altered beyond the point of recognition. The subject of the photojournalistic originals remain contested since President George W. Bush justified military intervention in Iraq by citing weapons of mass destruction that ultimately did not exist. This fabrication of intelligence is represented by Talley’s manipulation of news imagery. In this way, he reminds viewers of the mutability of information, paralleling the work of contemporaries including Walid Raad, whose photographs of Beirut featured buildings damaged by war. Where Talley enlarged images to dissolve their clarity and “color” the way we consume photojournalism, Raad covered the bullet holes visible in building facades with brightly colored dots, alluding to the color coding organizational schema of ammunition manufacturers while simultaneously identifying each of the seventeen nations that contributed financially to war in Lebanon. The manipulation of wartime imagery dates to the earliest days of photography and the American Civil War, however the digital devices employed by Talley contest the manipulation of technology and information within the political spectrum.
STATES OF PERCEPTION
The year 2010 marked a significant shift in Talley’s professional trajectory, as he stepped down as Director of the Kutztown University Art Gallery and assumed full-time teaching responsibilities in the Department of Art. He currently teaches introductory and advanced classes in photography, a senior professional seminar called Business of Art, and a widely popular class on photo books. Freed from the administrative duties of running a gallery and reinvigorated by his class preparations and increased interactions with students, Talley has entered the most prolific period of his artistic career. In less than a decade, he has produced a remarkable body of work that fully realizes his diverse interests.
In Lessons (2011-Present), Talley photographed the corners of domestic interiors from a standardized vantage point, roughly eye level and approximately thirty-two inches from the wall. Rather than capturing a room with a wide angle lens, as is popular in real estate or interior design photography, or focusing on the objects and mementos that personalize a space, he draws viewers’ attention to spaces that often get overlooked. An edge of molding, from a picture frame or doorway, appears at the periphery of some of these photos, folds of curtains and radiator piping emerge, and the tones of wall paint or printed paper vary based on the natural light entering the corner. Talley does not illuminate these corners, instead the “natural” properties of the corners are captured with as much as accuracy as possible. By directing us away from the central axis of the interior, we notice elements of the space previously neglected: the reflections of shadows from an adjacent lamp, the cracks running down a plaster wall, variations of paint gloss or finish in those hard-to-reach places. Some corners read rather illusionistically, with door frames and molding suggesting a recession into depth, while in other instances a lack of framing devices renders the image flat, confusing the viewer’s sense of perspective. Through this seemingly simple yet brilliant maneuver, Talley engages the semiotics of visual representation, in which the corner, a break in planes, establishes the difference in surface that grounds an understanding of space. A rupture in the picture plane thus “represents” a corner, yet when flattened out in this process of documentation, a corner comes to “represent” a break in pictorial continuity. The corner becomes, then, the marker of difference Derrida described as being key to signification. 
Considering his initial training as a painter, Talley’s references to the critical discourse surrounding the medium of painting should not be surprising, yet his art activism provides another context for considering Lessons. In addition to drawing viewers’ awareness of fictive space in relation to the photographic picture plane, Talley directs our focus towards architectural corners, a site frequently associated with confinement and secrecy. The corner can be associated with being forced to sit in a space as a form of punishment in grade school, the language of declaring independence from overbearing parents (the oft repeated quote, “nobody puts Baby in the corner,” from the movie Dirty Dancing comes to mind), and spaces of confinement and horror (such as the climax of the film The Blair Witch Project). Within the context of art, corners most prominently featured in Adrian Piper’s iconic video installation, Cornered (1988). In this work, a series of chairs are arranged to focus on a television monitor set in a corner before an overturned table. On the screen, the artist delivers a monologue about suffering the racism that continues to plague America today, utilizing the metaphor of the corner to frame her discussion around entrapment and inequality. Like Piper’s role as didact in Cornered, Talley creates Lessons for viewers, confronting them with their biases and prejudices. Despite being framed to limit access to the domestic interiors he shoots, Talley’s photographs retain numerous references to the inhabitant’s social, economic, and cultural standing. Whether a puzzle hung on the wall or curtain visible beyond a door jamb, masks mounted to hooks or weathered Victorian wallpaper, these corners convey the identity of the inhabitant through things material as well as our expectations. In this way, Talley aligns with Piper by confronting us with our preconceptions. Just as Piper feels cornered by, and corners viewers to acknowledge, prejudice and bias, Talley corners our gaze, directing it inwards towards the material realities of our assumptions.
Lessons were not the only photographs where Talley addressed discourses on pictorial flatness and perspectival illusionism. In Red Garage with Zip Extension (2013), he paired two photographs of the same structure together, the top larger image capturing a garage with red siding and vertical battening, while beneath appeared a smaller detail of the same red siding albeit with no devices that identify the photograph as exterior siding beyond the reference image above. Abstracted due to the way Talley cropped this image, repeating vertical lines from the corrugated surface create an all-over pattern interrupted only by the white color of one of the verticals. The Zip Extension from the title alludes to the Abstract Expressionist painter Barnett Newman, who similarly created red color fields that were punctuated with vertical forms painted in different hues. Calling these devices “zips” to give them agency, Newman’s canvases invited contemplation while inspiring the Minimalist movement that followed.  Talley’s homage to Newman and the zip appears in the form of found imagery, a quotidian structure ubiquitous throughout the borough of Kutztown which, through Talley’s careful consideration and photographic craftsmanship, assumes the properties of modernist painting. That a representational photograph achieved similar attributes to Newman would have challenged critics like Clement Greenberg who celebrated Abstract Expressionist painting for stressing medium specificity and preserving an artistic purity of means. Talley’s gesture not only turned these values on their head, but by photographically contesting the painterly logic of Abstract Expressionism, engaged in the paragone. The paragone refers to a rivalry or competition between the arts, a debate about the superiority of certain mediums by artists and critics that runs throughout the history of art. Here, Talley usurps Abstract Expressionism, once heralded by Irving Sandler as the “triumph” of American painting, through the camera, adding to historic debates about photography as an art form. 
Talley’s mapping of domestic interiors stems from a broader consideration of photographic space and veracity. In Floor Models (2016), (H10 A-or-B) he turned his viewfinder towards the floor and shot various types of flooring which he then printed on non-skid vinyl. Photographed from directly above, these images retain a clarity and accuracy that, when displayed on the gallery floor, trick viewers into thinking they are components of actual flooring. A contemporary trompe l’oeil, the historical term for fooling the eye through illusionistic painting techniques, Floor Models often caught viewers unaware of their surroundings, leading them to walk across the photographs and recoil in horror when they realized they stepped on art. In this way, Floor Models evoke comparison to Carl Andre’s metal floor sculptures, and Talley’s use of the grid pays homage to Minimalism and Andre’s floor “plains”. Where Andre stressed the material properties of the metal employed for his sculptures, the photographic verism in Talley’s prints accentuate the surface of smooth lacquered or weather-beaten wood, plush carpet and dimpled vinyl. By placing their sculptures and photographs flush on the floor, Andre and Talley force viewers to reorient themselves, rotating the traditional upright viewing angle down to the ground. As in many of his works, Talley utilizes a witty, tongue-in-cheek title since Floor Models could refer to a product employed for marketing and sales, while it also describes the fact that different models or types of flooring are portrayed. The range of materials and patterns represented in the photographs further calls to mind Gordon Matta-Clark and his presentation of architectural relics excised from buildings. However where Matta-Clark’s sculptural relics and photographs emphasized acts of removal through saw cuts and references to demolition, Talley’s images preserve the flooring cleanly, embalming the patina and patterning of each.
In Elevation (2014), Talley similarly played with standard viewing angles, photographing a Persian carpet from above and then hanging the image on the wall vertically. This reversal of planes garnered Jackson Pollock considered critical attention as he created his drip paintings on the floor before installing them in the standard upright museum configuration. In both instances, the artists shift our awareness of space and encourage different acts of looking. Pollock’s maneuver remained wedded to process, the accumulation of his drips and splatters would have appeared far differently if working upright since the wet pigment would run in accordance to gravity. The process of weaving Persian rugs often result in nuances of coloration wherein certain viewing angles produce different tones of fibers. While the photograph removes this surface feature, the suspension of the carpet presents it in the format often reserved for painting. Rather than horizontal as a decorative element, the rug commands visual contemplation no different from Pollock’s canvases, and in this way, Talley challenges debates about art versus craft. While the Abstract Expressionists might have eschewed the word “decoration” for fear of losing agency or legitimacy as artists, Talley exposes this distinction as cliché and undermines this particular instance of paragone. He reinforces this notion by removing the central rosette of the carpet and hanging it in an ornate gilded frame next to the full scale photograph of the original rug. Captured in high definition, retouched and varnished, this rug extract appears iconic, a maneuver acknowledged in Talley’s title as he elevates the decorative art object into the realm of “fine” art.
A STATE OF REFLECTION
In The Trouble with Cowboys (2013), Talley explores personal narratives and histories through conceptually rich objects, works that demonstrate his critical engagement with memory, visual culture, and art history. Headshots of famous actors playing roles of cowboys are covered in colored dots that both obscure and intensify the portraits visible beneath. Referencing his father’s colorblindness and interest in westerns, these photographs question the gaps in knowledge and clarity prevalent throughout American history and popular culture. The cowboy remains a fraught figure in both, as histories of lawlessness and genocide collide with an archetype romanticized as pioneering, rugged, self-sufficient, and unquestionably masculine. This hero often operated under a moral code, where the “good” cowboy protected the weak or downtrodden, often cast as women or the elderly, battling “bad” guys dressed in black or personified by red-skinned “Indians”. Talley likened Hollywood’s reductive framing of good versus evil to his father’s preference for black-and-white westerns, since the tonal gradations of colorless cinema seemed visually richer due to his protanopia. In a caption explaining this comparison, he wrote, “The oversimplification of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, and monochrome clarity vs. color complexity underpins The Trouble with Cowboys.” At once an homage to his father and celebration of seminal artists like John Baldessari who critiqued the nature of representation decades earlier by placing colored dots over the faces in black-and-white photographs, The Trouble with Cowboys reminds viewers of their own enculturation. Indeed, preferences for particular types of music or sports teams are passed down as part of familial bonds, while a nostalgia for the “classic” leading man, and era he represents, often obscures the realities of that generation. The history of art similarly canonizes such heroes, with the solitary “cowboy” trope extended to artists like Jackson Pollock and Michael Heizer, and Richard Prince’s appropriation of the Marlboro Man upholding this ideal.
The cowboy is but one of several archetypal figures in American lore and Talley channeled another while creating his Walks in North Park series (2014-15), that of the naturalist or outdoorsman. He admits that this project represents a point of departure in his studio practice, because where he typically deconstructs photographic attributes through conceptual and aesthetic considerations, here he engaged subjects directly, outside of the studio. In Walks in North Park, Talley would return to North Park once a month over the course of a calendar year for a daily sojourn with photographic equipment in tow. North Park features 110-acres of land in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, and while exploring this wooded terrain, he engaged the landscape photographically and wrote a short essay based upon his experiences. Each outing yielded a few hundred images that Talley reduced to approximately twenty. Those twenty images were then printed and handbound into a photo book with the help of Emilie Breaux Haaf, his former student at Kutztown University. The twelve volume set featured digital prints but Talley also used a 5 x 7 large-format film camera to produce several 38 x 53 inch prints. In this way, Talley challenged himself to work in different formats and utilize cameras with different properties and capacities, while he also addressed a loaded subject in American art history and lore, landscape.
Talley’s photographs of North Park capture the changing landscape through seasonal variation, as the forested terrain changes colors during autumn, becomes covered in snow through winter, and returns to verdancy in spring and summer. The photographs themselves frame wooded trails, capture barren tree limbs above, isolate trunks of birch trees or decaying maples, capture foliage blown by the wind through long blurry exposures, and yield abstractions of reflections on snow. Rarely does Talley shoot from a distance panoramically, instead there is an intimacy to the series wherein the woods surround but do not threaten. In this way, he eschews the drama of the American landscape prevalent throughout art history and seems uninterested in notions of the sublime. This work speaks less of Ansel Adams and Alfred Bierstadt and more of Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost, and Robert Adams. The activities Talley preserved photographically and in prose, monthly walks outdoors, recalls Thoreau’s famous essay, Walking (1862), while lingering over the details of a birch tree or snowy groundcover evokes Frost’s poems “Birches” (1916) and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (1923) among others.
In format, Walks in North Park most parallels Adams’ Summer Nights, Walking (1985), a photobook consisting of nighttime landscapes near the artist’s home in Colorado. However Talley ignores the manmade interventions running throughout Adams’ project and remains focused solely on the natural landscape privileged by Thoreau and Frost. The act of repeatedly documenting one’s activities evinces Talley’s debt to Conceptual Art, and in this way, Vito Acconci’s notorious Following Piece (1969) comes to mind. Both Talley and Acconci employ the camera as a form of self-reportage, yet Acconci charted other people’s experiences as he followed them throughout New York City. Talley, instead, invites viewers to join him while exploring our natural environment and shares his thoughts along the way. His essays reflect upon mortality and time, his time spent living in Georgia and Pennsylvania, the history of photography, Homer, Frost, and Adams, among others. While the texts remain humble and filled with declarations that Talley is no naturalist, landscape photographer, or woodsman, the poetic imagery and verse of Walks in North Park suggest otherwise. It is hard not to consider this work within the context of today’s climate change crisis as North Park is but one of countless environments now threatened, adding further significance to Talley’s photographic act of preservation.
Beyond nature, the preservation of culture recurs as subject throughout much of Talley’s oeuvre. Whether photographing domestic interiors and vernacular architecture, appropriating photojournalism or Hollywood headshots, or creating artist spaces and magazines, his commitment to furthering and retaining culture remains consistent. Talley’s interest in historic preservation lead to an unexpected body of work when the Allentown Art Museum commissioned him to create art inspired by the city of Allentown. Part of Allentown X 7 (2016-17), which featured seven area photographers, Seeing Through Psychics (2016) juxtaposes beautifully photographed objects from former city buildings with “readings” of those objects by local psychics. In a haunting and provocative way, Talley balanced the weathered materiality of artifacts from the past with colors inspired by the psychic’s reading of them. Text excerpts from the medium’s account appear printed over the monochromatic panels, creating profound reflections on memory, skepticism, and lost histories. Psychics remain a subject of interest today, with television shows such as Hollywood Medium and Long Island Medium popular among viewers, but the wordplay of Talley’s title suggests the disbelief and cynicism frequently cast towards the supernatural or occult. The seriousness of the photographic format, however, conveys a sensitivity to these other modes of perception, and accounts of loss consistently accompany objects that appear dated and forgotten. Ultimately, Talley considers what objects convey while simultaneously reminding viewers of the limits to our knowledge and ability to communicate.
This series was so successful that the Allentown Art Museum acquired several of the prints for their permanent collection, and the works were shown in subsequent exhibitions at Millersville University and the Zuckerman Museum of Art (Kennesaw, Georgia). At a time when many of his contemporaries have eased into retirement, Talley has hit his stride, entering his most prolific period as an artist. State: Obvious / Not So affords the opportunity to view the fruits of this recent labor and revisit nearly five decades of artistic practices. This endeavor challenges and rewards as his engagement with art remains conceptually rich and aesthetically compelling. Talley’s oeuvre builds upon his interests in Conceptualism and Minimalism, however despite employing the formats and strategies of these movements, the quality of his image making remains far more refined. Considering his long history as a gallery director and curator, Talley’s emphasis on craftsmanship and the properties of the object should not be surprising. Whether color matching or framing shots, his attention for detail produces elegant prints and photobooks. But the obvious elements that attract the eye coincide with not so obvious inquiries into the nature of perception, history, and representation.
A FAMILIAR STATE
I first met Dan Talley in Dallas, Texas, during the College Art Association annual conference in February of 2008. I had applied to teach contemporary art at Kutztown University, and Dan was a member of the search committee who interviewed me for the job. I sat next to Dan during a breakfast meeting as part of the interview and we immediately connected over many shared interests. A stimulating conversation ensued about wide-ranging topics including the upcoming Whitney Biennial, the Unmonumental show at the New Museum, living in Western New York, national and regional politics, blues and jazz music, baseball, and kayaking. I knew pretty much from the start that I wanted to work with Dan.
At Kutztown we overlapped through the Miller Gallery, as I served on the faculty gallery committee and Dan still held the position of director at the time. His professionalism and critical insight as a curator impressed me greatly, particularly as he founded the installation residency program that has grown to feature significant international artists. His support was instrumental as I developed new courses and negotiated the tenure track, while trips to visit museums and galleries in New York with Dan were always filled with laughs, great conversation, and incredible stories from his time in Atlanta, Hartford, and Jamestown. During my second year at Kutztown, Dan and I co-taught an experimental course, “Theory and Practice in Contemporary Art,” that attempted to better align the studio curriculum with theory and critical discourse. Intensive readings informed studio projects, while critiques featured our two voices, and the dynamic exchange of ideas that ensued, and quality of students enrolled, remains the most rewarding teaching experience of my career.
A look at Talley’s recent work reflects his impact as a teacher and generosity as a colleague. His collaboration with former students including Emilie Breaux Haaf, Nicki Stager, and Natalie Notoris indicate his ability to connect with people of all ages and backgrounds, while the depth of his artistic references and stature of his collaborations reveal Talley’s ambition and reputation in the art world. Dan has impacted the arts across the eastern seaboard, from Atlanta to Hartford and Jamestown to Berks County, while his initiatives resulted in nationally prominent ventures — Real Art Ways and Art Papers — that remain vital forums for the preservation of culture in America. This unassuming man, often dressed in music t-shirts while carrying a camera over his shoulder, lives in a modest one-bedroom apartment close to campus, yet his personal relationships in the artworld range from Kiki Smith and Nene Humprey to Gregory Coates and Lydia Panas. Collaborations with canonical artists Vito Acconci and Michelangelo Pistoletto legitimize any career, however the body of work in State: Obvious / Not So remains the most impressive component of Talley’s multifaceted career in the arts. A lifetime of serious looking, thoughtful consideration, and inventive making contribute to a remarkable body of art, one obvious in its state of excellence.
Daniel Haxall, Ph.D.
Dr. Haxall is Professor of Art History at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of over twenty peer-reviewed books, essays, and reviews on diverse topics in contemporary art including Abstract Expressionism, collage, the African diaspora, and the intersection of sports and art.
1 Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,” October 55 (Winter 1990), pp. 105-143. [Back to text]
2 For an excellent discussion of the postwar evolution of artist “work”, see: Helen Molesworth, Work Ethic (Baltimore: Baltimore Museum of Art; University Park, Penn State UP, 2003). [Back to text]
3 Rosalind Krauss, “LeWitt in Progress,” October 6 (Autumn 1978), pp. 46-60. [Back to text]
5 For more on the 40th anniversary of Real Art Ways, see: Susan Dunne, “Real Art Ways Marks 40 Years of Defending Gritty, Contemporary Art,” Hartford Courant (12 May 2016): https://www.courant.com/ctnow/arts-theater/hc-real-art-ways-40th-anniversary-0515-20160515-story.html. [Back to text]
6 The records of the Atlanta Art Workers Coalition are housed in the Atlanta History Center, papers that include meeting notes, exhibition announcements, correspondence, etc. http://ahc.galileo.usg.edu/ahc/view?docId=ead/ahc.MSS887-ead.xml
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7 For more on the history of arts-based activism in Atlanta during the 1970s, including interviews with many of the women who played significant roles in the AAWC and Art Papers, see: Julia Brock, Teresa Bramlette Reeves, and Kirstie Tepper, “Art and Activism in in 1970s Atlanta,” ATLS: Atlanta Studies (4 October 2016): https://www.atlantastudies.org/art-and-activism-in-1970s-atlanta/. [Back to text]
9 Jacques Derrida, “Différance,” Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1982); Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivak (1967; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2016). [Back to text]
10 Sarah K. Rich, Bridging the Generation Gaps in Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?, American Art 19, no. 3 (Fall 2005), pp. 16-39. [Back to text]
11 Irving Sandler, The Triumph of American Painting (New York: Praeger, 1970). [Back to text]
12 Jackson Pollock’s identification with the American West runs throughout period reviews and art historical scholarship as his birth in Cody, Wyoming, has been much rehearsed. The cowboy persona remains attached to Michael Heizer by virtue of geography and his use of land as medium. For similar constructions of Heizer’s persona, see, for example, Michael Kimmelman, “Art’s Last, Lonely Cowboy, The New York Times Magazine (6 February 2006): https://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/06/magazine/arts-last-lonely-cowboy.html. Time Magazine featured Richard Prince’s appropriation of the Marlboro Man, particularly Untitled (Cowboy),(1989), in its series, 100 Photographs: The Most Influential Images of All Time: http://100photos.time.com/photos/richard-prince-cowboy. [Back to text]