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Catastrophe and comfort: Jillian Mayer’s makeshift paradise reflects dire environmental circumstances.
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Catastrophe and comfort: Jillian Mayer’s makeshift paradise reflects dire environmental circumstances.

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At a glance, Jillian Mayer’s exhibition at Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art appears as a makeshift paradise of brightly colored, often amorphous objects sonically enlivened by recorded birdsongs and the sound of trickling water.

Spend a little more time with this array of sculptures, paintings, videos, audio components and ad-hoc furnishings, and it takes on a more unsettling character. Notice, for example, the prominent video projection of a skywriter’s message emblazoned across an expanse of blue sky.

“YOU’LL BE OKAY,” it reads — a message likely to strike viewers as reassuring until it gradually disappears.

In a related vein and installed nearby is “I AM FINE” — three words awkwardly burned into an irregularly shaped sheet of steel. This common expression of denial in the face of difficult personal experience reflects a prevailing approach to the specific realities of climate change and environmental degradation — a situation on which the piece ironically comments.

Mayer’s work is about our society’s responses to and accommodations of environmental collapse — a real-life problem that looms ever larger with the passage of time. How, she implicitly asks, do we live with the fact that our way of life is increasingly destructive to the planet that sustains us?

“As comfortably as possible” is one answer to that question, reflecting an attitude that Mayer’s work critiques. Making the so-called best of a bad situation often means trying to ignore that situation.

A number of Mayer’s sculptures resemble furnishings and interior-design items fashioned from gussied-up detritus and salvaged materials.

Her approach to sculpting might be described as follows: Cobble it together, glom it with a heavy coating of epoxy and give it a festively abstract-expressionist paint job, then use it to sit on or as a display setting for decorative knickknacks or utilitarian objects.

The most elaborate example of this method is Mayer’s “Photobooth,” an installation resembling a playhouse contrived from things a child might have made or found, including wooden crates, rudimentary ladders and lopsided ceramic objects, all painted in an array of flowery hues. If it weren’t so clean and colorful, it might also call to mind the personal spaces that homeless people often improvise in abandoned urban buildings and tunnels.

Couch-like objects and low benches scattered throughout the show are meant to function as seating, where viewers can pause to rest or contemplate. Other pieces are clunky elaborations on shelving units and other domestic-display furnishings.

There’s also a freestanding, folding screen that Mayer has embellished with rope, two sets of cheap wind chimes and shelving additions, one of which displays a crudely fashioned clay figurine.

A piece that Mayer calls a “Stumpie” transforms a sawed-off, multi-branching tree stump into a freestanding, multi-tiered display unit that holds a stapler, an ersatz potted plant and a plastic pitcher partly filled with red liquid. The latter objects can presumably be replaced by others intended for comfort, use or decoration.

At SECCA this idiosyncratic sculpture is installed alongside one of the show’s most overt comments on climate change — Mayer’s video projection titled “BEACH REAL ESTATE fine by me.” Large cutout letters that spell out “BEACH REAL ESTATE” are implanted on the stretch of beach framed by this video documenting the tide’s erosive impact on the signage, which it eventually obliterates.

The phrase “fine by me” reflects denialism akin to that parodied in the previously discussed “I AM FINE.” A more elaborate articulation might read as follows: “I don’t like what real estate developers have done to beachfront property, and I don’t care if the rising ocean destroys it all.”

All the other evidence gathered here indicates that Mayer would regard that attitude as a cop-out.

More enigmatic within the exhibition’s overall context are a couple of freestanding sculptures Mayer created by applying a metal-cutting tool to door-sized, rectangular sheets of steel. In each case, she cut out a huge, jagged-edged tongue that she bent out at close to a 90-degree angle so it suggests a framed object morphing into a massive disembodied mouth daring viewers to step inside. One of these pieces is painted green, which renders the tongue-like cutout as more of a massive leaf.

Without touching them, it’s hard to tell what they’re made of, but the show also includes a number of clunky-looking, darkly painted snakelike forms at various points on the floor alongside the walls. The allusion to the Garden of Eden is duly noted.

Mayer’s show is titled “Timeshare,” a term invented for the multi-owner vacation-home industry. Applied to the pieces gathered here, it references our shared custody of the global environment and our responsibility for maintaining its livability in spite of odds that seem increasingly insurmountable.

In the wake of devastation and flooding from Hurricane Ida, which visited on a large swath of the Southern and Eastern United States, Mayer’s show makes for an uncomfortably timely viewing experience.

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