“Plywood Fountain,” an artwork with a perfectly descriptive title, occupies one room of Almost Vegetarian, Noah Sheldon’s first solo show at Southfirst Gallery in Williamsburg. “Plywood Fountain” is an unadorned four-by-four-foot polyurethaned birch box fitted with an electric pump emitting a jet of water, which takes on an iridescent sheen from three colored lights submerged in its basin. It refers less to the illustrious fountains in the history of conceptual art—think Duchamp and Nauman—than it does to the more ornate waterworks installed in various Thai and Korean eateries around Bedford Avenue. The sound of the water is augmented by “On the Banks of the Orinoco,” an audio work that reprocesses Enya’s 1988 new-age crossover hit “Orinoco Flow” into a murmur of muted chords. The two pieces taken together allude to a fictional trip to the Orinoco River in Venezuela, and they spell out the issues Sheldon is dealing with here: travel, aesthetics, and spirituality, all refracted through quotidian forms and suspect cultural expressions.
The sculptures are presented along with several photographic works: two large color prints of a ficus plant and an arrangement of artificial peonies, respectively, and a slide show. The prints are the same size and format and play with minute differences in presentation. “Ficus” shows a real plant in a slightly scruffy hallway, which could be anywhere. “Peonies” is a silk plant in a ceramic vase depicted frontally, with minimal indication of setting, in the manner of a commercial photograph. It is like a catalogue shot raised to an exalted level of perfection. Attributes of the two pictures seem to combine magically in “Grafted Sakura,” a real stick-plant on a pedestal to which small artificial red flowers have been attached.
The slide show is projected low on the wall and shows a loop of 160 travel photographs taken on trips to Malaysia, Taiwan, Sweden, Los Angeles, and other exotic locales. The pictures range from austere, classically composed landscapes to more candid portraits of friends, pets, and travel acquaintances. Sheldon, who also works as a commercial photographer, possesses a facility for setting up beautiful shots of trees, water, and flowers and seems incapable of taking an ugly picture. He lets the slides get really pretty, but he also knows when to stop the flow of lush imagery with an arresting and unexpected choice, like the picture of a half-eaten crab carcass on a paper placemat in a seafood restaurant that punctuates one particularly pastoral sequence of landscape shots.
The viewer’s experience of the show is enhanced by the sound of “Perpetual Wind Chimes,” which consists of a circular wooden ramp mounted on a turntable that revolves and bumps an aluminum pole, which in turn jostles a string attached to two sets of simple chimes mounted near the ceiling on opposite walls of the gallery. This creates a punctual burst of sound every minute or so. The effect is comically startling, a meditative disruption. Like “Grafted Sakura,” the chimes are about the production, at will, of the kind of revelatory experience that is supposed to happen only through chance or divinity.
The bottom line seems to be that in art, beauty and spirituality are always going to be in negotiation with commerce and embarrassing, terrible corniness. Anyone wanting to take a beautiful picture of an exotic landscape has to make some truce with the existence of travel brochures and naïve photojournalism. Anyone who wants to talk about meditative experience must face, unflinchingly, the reality of Enya. The works in this show slip between documentary realism and transparent fiction and, in a different register, between the conventionally beautiful and the antiaesthetic. The point isn’t rhetorical but pragmatic: Sheldon embraces whatever materials are available and uses them to achieve a functional practice of being in the world and making art. The title of the show, Almost Vegetarian, describes such a position: aspiring to a form of purity, but living with contradictions.