EJ Hill's performances don't wait for something to happen. Hill's works engage with the supposed boundaries we place on ourselves, focusing on the possibility of transcendence. There's a lightness and magical quality to Hill's deep brown eyes, which revel in self-awareness and an energetic spirit. Fit and always dressed his best, Hill seems to asks audiences to look at him and trust his desire to communicate this story. His performances invite the viewer into an emotional, painful, yet ultimately fulfilling experience that is an open, honest, and highly personal investigation into the cultural and social implications of his body as art.
Hill spent his childhood, adolescence, and early adult years in Los Angeles. Until age 8, he lived in South Central, on 108th and Hoover. From 8 to 15 years old, he resided in the Los Angeles enclave of Carson, and he spent the next five years in Torrance, in the South Bay. At age 20, he moved to Boston, where he continued to work in after-school education. At a summer camp in Maine, where he met Margaret Nomentana, his first creative/artistic mentor.
"I was assisting Margaret in this drawing workshop, and she was like 'hey, I think you should go to college -- to art school,' and I was like, 'Actually I don't think so.' But she kept on me," Hill says. "We kept in touch, and she emailed me with a list full of colleges, and I was 22 at this time and had been out of high school for four years. I took a total gamble, went to Columbia College for art school and had no idea what I was getting into. It all exploded when I got there."
At Columbia College, Hill found himself immersed in contemporary issues in new media. But it wasn't until he watched documentation of Chris Burden's "Selected Works" from 1970s when he realized that this was what he'd been looking for.
"I was like 'Oh my God, who is this crazy person?! I want to know everything about what is happening in these videos,'" says Hill. "I just remember being in this jaw-dropping moment, of thinking 'if this is art, I want this so bad,' and I just went for it. I had no idea that this [type of performance] could be art as well -- I was just used to watercolors at my dentists' office, and desert landscapes in the living room."
After undergrad ended in 2011, Hill returned to Los Angeles to enter UCLA's New Genres MFA program, where he worked with Andrea Fraser and Jennifer Bolande. He never thought he would return to L.A., and this return has also taken him back through past memories, particularly as seen in his most recent piece, The Fence Mechanism, which occurred on the evening of Saturday, October 25 at Commonwealth & Council.
For this performance, Hill tied a jump rope to a fence that he'd brought into the gallery, and swung the rope, jumping over it for approximately two hours before completely collapsing. As he fell, the community of people at the show came to his side. The piece came about partly as a response to recalling a formative time during his adolescence in Los Angeles, but only truly began after a difficult breakup, when Hill found himself searching through old journals, trying to remember how he'd moved on from this sort of difficult period before. He came across a drawing of a jump rope, dated August 31, 2011. It was a relic not just from his recent adult past, but a recollection of an adolescent coping mechanism.
"I went to this Catholic school in South Central on Manchester and Vermont, and I only had female friends," says Hill. "There was a time during middle school in 8th grade when the girls grew breasts and got their periods and started to check out boys. And they would just stand at the fence and stare at boys. I just wanted to play -- I was still a kid, but I didn't want to play sports with the boys, and so I was left to my own devices."
That time was spent in between loneliness and solitude, which is typical of a queer adolescence when gender and sexuality start to become more rigid and less fluid, one is made more aware of their racial identity, and sex enters the picture. At a time when straight counterparts are figuring out attractions to the opposite sex, queer kids start realizing their sexual identity and not knowing with whom to identify. It's a difficult transition.
"I remember one time I had a jump rope and I tied it to the fence, and the fence became a surrogate for someone else holding a rope," Hill says. "Sometimes the two of us would double-dutch with this 'other' who would help us play this game we wanted to play."
In his performance at Commonwealth & Council, Hill re-enacted this memory -- but this time, he pushed himself until he passed out, and when he did the community of people at the gallery came to his rescue, as if to alleviate the memory of that solo jump roping with the fence.
"I had hoped I would be able to go until 11pm (three hours, the length of the opening), but every time I mentioned that, it seemed I was the only one who thought it was possible," Hill says. "I knew I would eventually tap out but had no idea if that would be 30 minutes or three hours."
Another of Hill's pieces that tests physical boundaries is Drawn (2011), which he made upon returning to Los Angeles. As per his performances, in which he's always well dressed, he places himself in the gallery, wearing a proper white button-up shirt, black tie, and black slacks, with face up against a white studio wall, licking it until something happened. That something was his tongue bleeding, which wasn't the piece's original intention. Hill had been thinking about making paintings with his mouth while at the same time investing in a resistance to making beautiful objects that one could hang on the wall. Instead, he literally placed his body on the wall in what he calls "the most intimate way I know how." The intention was to make a quick gesture, but it ended up taking a piece of Hill, leaving a mark, becoming literal art, and engaging the body in what at first seemed sensual, but later became aggressive.
In another recent performance in Los Angeles, entitled "Signaling Through the Flames" (2014), which was produced by LAXART's Amanda Hunt and premiered at the Art Los Angeles Contemporary art fair, Hill wasn't physically defeated as per his usual endurance performances. He used the language of pop and the persona of a lounge singer to discuss social and feminist issues, and engage directly with his identity as a Black queer man. He examined positions of privilege in social spaces, all of which came about for him because of Beyoncé's surprise album.
"It's interesting for a mega pop star to bring that to something more accessible, in a language that I could understand -- it was Black, female, entertainment -- and that is one I spoke from my playground days of loving TLC and En Vogue and all these women who I loved and identified with as a seven-year-old, meeting me again later in life," he says. "It's also like, how do you feel about feminism now that it's packaged this way?"
In his performance, Hill sang his own feminism, and the complicated space of navigating his own intersectional feminist identity as a queer Black man, while dressed as a lounge singer in a tux, crooning to the crowd.
"I know what it's like to have my body policed -- and controlled and used for someone else's pleasure, and I think if anything, that in and of itself is one way for me to enter into thinking about feminism, is thinking about the body and my decision over my body and how it's used and how that may or may not align with someone else's decisions to how my body is used, portrayed or viewed -- so I sang about all that stuff to mostly rich white people," he explained.
At the heart of all his work, Hill is invested in the complexities of human relationships, of psychology and understanding one's self in a world of complicated identities and quick, image-based judgments. In addition to recent shows in Los Angeles, including "Complicit and Tacit" at Honor Fraser Gallery and "Help is On the Way (For Mark Aguhar, Trayvon Martin, and the rest of Us)" at Monte Vista Projects, Hill has performed at Grace Exhibition Space in Brooklyn, the Chicago Cultural Center, The Hills Esthetic Center in Chicago, as well as performing a Civil War reenactment in Boscobel, Wisconsin. With every creative journey, there is a new discovery, and the end point is not some cashed-out pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
"Each time I 'go there' I'm able to come back with a new limit for what I can withstand, what I can endure," says Hill. "Like drawing the line only to cross it. No boundary is ever fixed."