EJ Hill was tired – at least that was the premise of “Wherever we will to root” at Oxy Arts in Los Angeles. “I was sad and tired,” the artist said in the press release, “so I decided to buy myself some flowers.” He also decided to make paintings of it. This explained the artist’s move away from endurance-based performances and heavy-hearted installations to a suite of large, bright flowers. Hill is best known for standing atop a winners’ podium in a gallery for entire days of work, without a break (Excellentia, Mollitia, Victoria2018, at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles), and for being displayed in the loop of a model roller coaster (A monumental supply of potential energy, 2016, at the Studio Museum in Harlem). In both efforts, Hill used her disconcerting presence to amplify the racial and gender associations clinging to her own body until they sing. After exhausting himself in public, the exhibition text implied – and after living through two particularly exhausting years of pandemic-induced uncertainty and blatant racist violence, visitors might have added – Hill found respite in the painting process.
The emphasis here was on process: the panels on display, depicting sheaves and tangles of daffodils, roses, violets, etc., on scrubby monochrome fields, were the result of another kind of performance deprived of studio duration, supposedly restorative, inner, and unobserved – a gathering of energy for future foray into larger themes. Hill’s still lifes are pleasing to the eye. Again, as paintings as paintings, it’s hard to spend a lot of time on it. If making the paintings was therapeutic, seeing them was less so. The show depended on the compensatory backstory of Hill’s previous work. To put it bluntly, if this light and deskilled dish hadn’t been made by a contemporary artist of talent and reputation (Hill is part of the 2022 Whitney Biennale), who would care? The seasonal dynamic of exhaustion and rejuvenation, aptly symbolized by the open blooms and acrylic smear, was the draw.
At this point, two non-pictorial works in the exhibition represented an ongoing practice of care and endurance: Vase with some flowers (2020-22, made with August Grahn), a porcelain wall sink overflowing with a fresh bouquet (replenished as needed, otherwise the piece would have entailed everything the show claimed to represent); and Garden (2022), a small white grand piano tilted in the middle of the gallery, the lid open as if ready for a recital. On the piano music stand is a yearbook page from the artist’s past and what could be a photograph of the Hill family: the artist interprets his own pathos. Throughout the show, a series of events were woven including a sunset hike on nearby Fiji Hill, culminating in a feast of Guyanese dishes prepared by DJ and chef Jasani Jacobs; a watercolor workshop, run by the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, whose participants painted flowers and sent them to incarcerated women; and a closing musical performance by Hill and Jeffrey Michael Austin as Daisy Days – they played piano. The pending keys, the abundant vase-sink, and the loose style and subject matter of the paintings, suggested an atmosphere of spontaneity. Instead, the objects in the exhibit attested to the purposefulness of Hill’s healing performance and then served as the backdrop for the community therapy of public programs.
The idea of the paintings as mere “relief” artifacts was also complicated by the clouds of neon affixed to two of them, a la Mary Weatherford. In Even the clouds are losing sleep (2022) and root note (2022), the white gas in the glass piping ricochets around the circuit in the form of pellets. The neon elements recall their corollary in Hill’s body performance practice, in which handwritten phrases rendered in neon pressurize any otherwise ambiguous theme. In fact, the Oxy Arts show explicitly answered the question Hill posed four years ago in the neon script mounted behind the podium during his Hammer presentation: “Where on earth, in what soils and under what conditions? shall we bloom brightly and violently?” The title of the Oxy show answered: “Where we want to put down roots”, wherever we decide. But these paintings are neither brilliant nor violent; the fluffy neon icons added a touch of calculation to the horizon of an otherwise twee show, anchoring the artwork in old painterly objectivity. Hill’s exhibition reminded visitors that art can be therapy, and that therapy can involve a kind of refusal (to perform for others, to burn out). But in trying to make this argument, the paintings ran out.