Cornell photographer exhibits work at campus gallery – ithaca.com

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Updated: November 25, 2021 @ 2:22 am
Structures, Labics’s fall 2018 exhibition and reception in John Hartell Gallery.
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Structures, Labics’s fall 2018 exhibition and reception in John Hartell Gallery.
ITHACA, NY — A staff member at Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning (AAP) since 1984 — and official college photographer since 2009 — Bill Staffeld is a memorable fixture at the school. Documenting lectures, studios, and other happenings: you’re sure to see him around with his camera. This will be his last school year before retirement. 
On view through Nov. 29 at the AAP’s John Hartell Gallery, “William Staffeld: Examination of the Eye” is an informally presented but compelling career retrospective. The exhibition has been organized into six loosely thematic sections. Juxtaposed in each is a large black-and-white print recalling the artist’s ‘70s youth and smaller, mostly full-color shots from the past decade. The work is unframed and hung irregularly. 
The show’s title borrows from a large, upright format monochrome. Like many shots from the series, “Examination of the Eyes” shows us looking through windows into a common storefront — in this case an optometrist’s. The downward angled scene is familiar enough but ineffably evokes a period atmosphere. 
Scanned from old slides and printed digitally, Staffeld’s black-and-white images are the most commanding pieces here. Shots from the series (including some reprised here) were the subject of a memorable 2016 show, “Upstate ‘70s: The Soul of a Documentary Photographer.” Begun around 1972, when the artist was a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, they record street scenes from towns and cities across upstate New York. 
Varying considerably in size and arrangement, Staffeld’s color images would have more presence at a larger scale or perhaps framed. There’s a fine line between an informal gallery display and a sloppy or haphazard one. This show manages, more-or-less, to stay on the right side of it. The impression — and likely the deliberate metaphor — is of an artist-documentarian running around campus in a hyperactive blur. 
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A section entitled “Work and Materials” highlights the dirty, workaday side of life in the art and architecture school — even one seemingly dominated by clean-cut contemporary spaces like “starchitect” Rem Koolhaas’ Milstein Hall. Here we see architecture students in their open-plan, shared areas and visual arts students in their more individualized domains. Anchoring the section, the black-and-white “Bob with Upholstery Rolls” portrays an older, boot and sweater-clad man seated in a shadowy room amidst tall scrolls of fabric. Less gripping formally but a nice choice nonetheless, “Printmaking in Tjaden Hall,” from 1984, provides a glimpse of an intermediate history that could perhaps have been explored here in greater depth.
More compact and focused, “Looking Through and Into” offers close-up and often oddly angled or cropped views of Cornell buildings in Ithaca and New York City. Recalling the great urban photographer Robert Frank in its blend of intimacy and detachment, “Barroom Curtain” brings the viewer back to a grittier time and place.
“Display,” another smaller section, focuses on exhibition itself as a theme. In monochrome, “Night Mannequins” shows — in striking chiaroscuro — a partially lit up fashion display juxtaposed against a darkened, snowy street. 
The stark surfaces and abstract forms of Milstein lend themselves well to the cool architectural photography of Staffeld’s “Light and Space” section. While “Myrtle,” from the ‘70s, is compelling enough, I was more engaged by the burst of strong color seen through the ocular window of “Red Painting” and the yin/yang shapes of the black-and-white “Milstein Auditorium.” 
“Elliot Sleeping in Station” – holding down a passage dedicated to “Repose” – shows a young man dozing off on a bench amidst a glorious, perhaps nineteenth or early twentieth-century waiting room. 
Finally, a section dedicated to scenes of “Action” includes several prints making interesting use of motion blur. Again the strongest piece is the vintage one: here the dizzy, upward-gazing “Barroom Blurred.” Curiously enough, the dive bar ceiling tiles are echoed in “Skateboarder Over the Bubbles” — wherein we look up at the stamped metal panels decorating Milstein’s underside. 
This is an interesting show to come into for a campus outsider such as myself. It will necessarily have different meanings for the AAP students, staff, and faculty that make up its chief audience. Nonetheless, the themes of nostalgia and voyeurism baked into this art are universal enough and the pieces either stand well on their own or work en masse to convey a sense of busyness and accomplishment. 
Located inside Sibley Hall within Cornell’s AAP college, the John Hartell Gallery is free and open to the public from Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. through 4:30 p.m.   
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