On York Boulevard in LA’s Highland Park neighborhood, vibrant flower paintings hang on the gallery walls of Oxy Arts, Occidental College’s public art center rooted in community and social justice. This colorful and serene series of compositions, which comprise the solo show Wherever we will to root, may appear to be a surprising choice from EJ Hill—an artist known for arduous performance-based work that explores the social inequities faced by Black, Brown and queer people. But as with Hill’s other work, this show intends to initiate a dialogue.
A white grand piano sits in the middle of the gallery surrounded by Hill’s floral paintings. Meldia Yesayan, the director at Oxy Arts, explains that the piano functions as an autobiographical piece as well as a self-portrait. Hill titled the work “Garden,” a play on the word kindergarten, and his own kindergarten class photo sits atop it.
There are moments in life when the darkness and the trauma beckon the beauty and the joy on the other end
“For the students and the greater community there is a vulnerability and a thoughtful examination of the human condition that he foregrounds that’s exactly what we need right now,” says Yesayan. “He describes it as a pendulum swing in his practice. There are moments in life when the darkness and the trauma beckon the beauty and the joy on the other end. They both work in harmony together.”
Yesayan further explains that the Wanlass Artist Residency at Oxy Arts—of which Hill is taking part—encourages conversation between an artist and the college community without any predetermined structure. The residency offers artists the opportunity to teach for a semester and mount a solo show to explore approaches to their practice in unexpected ways. Hill named his class Neutral and Authoritative Knowledge. This multi-disciplinary course was offered when students had just returned after two and a half semesters of distance learning. Together, their exploration of trauma and isolation germinated conversation and creative works that focused on restoration and balance at a time when healing was so crucial.
Hill’s relationship with Oxy Arts began in 2019 during their Shizu Saldamando exhibit. One event related to that show brought Hill and photographer Texas Isaiah together for a dialogue at the Made in LA exhibition at the Hammer Museum. The two conversed about Hill’s 2018 durational work “Excellentia, Mollitia, Victoria,” which Isaiah photographed. For the piece, Hill ran fear-conquering laps around six of the seven schools he attended growing up.
After this, for the three-month duration of the exhibition, Hill stood on a podium in a small gallery designed to resemble a school track for every hour that Made In LA was open to the public. The effect was mesmerizing, emotional and awe-inspiring for viewers, while being a punishingly arduous endeavor for the artist. In contrast, Hill has taken the time to paint flowers as a healing and therapeutic response to his physically challenging performance-based work as well as the stress of the pandemic, social upheaval and racial injustice. Hill invites gallery visitors into a room full of flowers to experience images of joy, beauty and balance.
With the installation of Wherever we will to root, Hill has chosen not to do interviews, but rather speak about the show in conversation with writer Paul Holdengraber at a public event. Hill will also lead a sunset hike accompanied by a picnic of Guyanese food made by his neighbor, Jasani Jacobs. For the closing night celebration, Hill will play a live concert with Jeffrey Michael Austin as their duo Daisy Days.
Choosing to not speak directly about his work is not new to Hill. Part of his MFA thesis at UCLA was a 30-day vow of silence. At the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2016 he laid motionless on a platform without speaking. This silence inspires curiosity about the artist’s thought process and explanations of his evocative and profound work. Some answers can be found on his Instagram, where he periodically writes vivid descriptions of his ideas. On 1 June 2019, Hill captioned an image of Dutch conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader on a small boat, “I’m trying to find a healthy balance just short of finding my miraculous. I wish I never find it. For the pursuit itself is what holds me tenderly between trough and crest, rolling me ad infinitum between and absence and presence, lapping the feet of those standing at their own edges of bliss.”
One more clue into his motivation can be found on the Oxy Arts Instagram. There, Hill posted, “I, just like the rest of you, am making it all up as I go along, responding in real time, hoping that my previous experiences coupled with my Cancerian intuition will eventually land me somewhere idyllic. Somewhere I can stay for a while—root, if you will. A futile endeavor? Perhaps. But what if it isn’t? Have I done enough yet to the point where I can say ‘They’re literally just paintings of flowers’ and have it suffice?”
Recently Hill received news that he has been invited to participate in this year’s Whitney Biennial, and with the theme “Quiet as It’s Kept,” he’s sure to have plenty to say, or not say, there.
Images by Ian Byers-Gamber. Courtesy of OXY ARTS, Los Angeles