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 offered in the press release, “so I decided to buy myself flowers.” He also decided to make paintings of them. This explained the artist’s swerve from endurance-based performances and heart-heavy installations to a suite of big, bright florals. Hill is best known for standing atop a winners’ podium in a gallery for whole working days, without breaks (Excellentia, Mollitia, Victoria, 2018, at the Hammer Museum in LA), and for displaying himself inside the loop of a model roller coaster (A Monumental Offering of Potential Energy, 2016, at the Studio Museum in Harlem). In both efforts, Hill used his discomfiting present-ness to amplify the raced and gendered associations clinging to his own body until they sang. After exhausting himself in public, the exhibition text implied—and then living through an especially draining two years of pandemic-induced uncertainty and flagrantly racist violence, visitors might have added—Hill found respite in the process of painting.
The emphasis here was on process: the panels on view, depicting sprays and tangles of daffodils, roses, violets, etc., on brushy monochrome fields, were the offspring of another, private sort of durational performance in the studio, supposedly restorative, interior, and unobserved—a gathering of energy for some future foray into weightier themes. Hill’s still lifes play easy on the eyes. Then again, as paintings qua paintings, they’re hard to spend much time on. If making the paintings was therapeutic, seeing them was less so. The show depended on the countervailing backstory of Hill’s previous work. To put it bluntly, if this light, deskilled fare hadn’t been made by a contemporary artist of skill and reputation (Hill is part of the 2022 Whitney Biennial), who would care? The seasonal dynamic of depletion and rejuvenation, aptly symbolized by open blooms and acrylic scumble, was the draw.
To this point, two non-painting works in the show represented an ongoing practice of care and endurance: Vase with flowers (2020–22, made with August Grahn), a wall-mounted porcelain sink overflowing with a fresh bouquet (replenished as needed, or else the piece would have dragged down everything the show claimed to stand for); and Garden (2022), a white baby grand piano angled across the middle of the gallery, cover open as if ready for a recital. On the piano’s music desk are a yearbook page from the artist’s past and what could be a Hill family photograph: the artist is performing his own pathos. Woven throughout the show’s run was a series of events, including a sunset hike up nearby Fiji Hill, culminating in a feast of Guyanese food prepared by DJ and chef Jasani Jacobs; a watercolor workshop, led 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 the piano. The waiting keys, the bountiful sink-vase, together with the loose style and subject of the paintings, suggested an atmosphere of spontaneity. Instead, the objects in the show attested to the deliberateness of Hill’s performance of healing, and then served as backdrops for the communal therapy of the public programs.
The idea of the paintings as simple artifacts of “relief” was also complicated by the neon clouds affixed to two of them, Mary Weatherford–style. In Even the clouds are losing sleep (2022) and root note (2022), the white gas in the glass piping rounds the circuit in pellet-like blips. The neon elements recall their corollary in Hill’s bodily performance practice, in which handwritten phrases rendered in neon pressurize any otherwise ambiguous themes. In fact, the show at Oxy Arts explicitly answered the question Hill posed four years ago in the neon script mounted behind the podium at his Hammer presentation: “where on earth, in which soils and under what conditions will we bloom brilliantly and violently?” The Oxy show’s title answered: “Wherever we will to root,” wherever we decide. But these paintings are neither brilliant nor violent; the fluffy neon icons added a wisp of calculation to the horizon of an otherwise twee show, grounding the work in plain old painterly objecthood. Hill’s show reminded visitors that art can be therapy, and that therapy can involve a kind of refusal (to perform for others, to exhaust oneself). But in straining to make that argument, the paintings exhausted themselves.