Few things are more mundane, and yet more evocative, than the trappings of a public-school classroom. For EJ Hill, who was born and educated in Los Angeles, an archetypal classroom is a fount of imagery. Through writing, performance, sculpture, and collage, Hill transmutes his formative classroom experiences, turning materials that decorate and obfuscate control into vessels for unlearning, alternative knowledge-production, and somatic refusal.
In EJ Hill’s performances, institutions provide both context and material for structural encounters. For the Hammer Museum’s Made in L.A. 2018, Hill presented Excellentia, Mollitia, Victoria, a 78-day, durational-performance installation centering around his scholastic experiences in Los Angeles. This installation was a ritual reclamation: Hill ran victory laps around his former schools, collapsing into stillness in the form of daily, enduring presence on a podium (christened Altar) in the gallery. In 2016, Hill staged A Monumental Offering of Potential Energy at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Here again, stillness emerges as a vehicle for immense exertion: in a room lit acid pink by neon rope adorning a skeletal rollercoaster, Hill lay prone at the base of the structure, eyes open. His unceasing, perpetual presence during museum hours traced a grueling endurance from one day to the next. In the gallery, his stasis was the foil for motion implied by the rollercoaster—in this installation as in reality, an imposing structure eliciting the binaries of fear and pleasure, mercilessly subjecting the body to the lessons of gravity and the laws of physics.
Enervation animates these performances and the confrontations they elicit. The ever-present threats of exhaustion and debilitation are most legible when Hill meets a solid surface: lying face down at the base of a rollercoaster, standing for hours on a winner’s podium, jumping rope with a fence as a playmate (The Fence Mechanisms, 2014), even letting a wall extract the blood from his tongue (Drawn, 2011).
In recent work, odds and ends from a public school classroom create a familiar backdrop for emotive play, where language facilitates Hill’s camouflaging of educational platitudes, empathetically subverting them as they’re reworked within the framework of the institution and its discourse. In three neon blackboard sculptures, Lesson #3 (2020), Lesson #2 (2019), and Lesson #1 (2019), Hill reinvents kindly aphorisms of the “believe and you can achieve” variety: “tenderness is our superpower,” “we are not our pain,” “twice as good is too much.” Riffing on a ubiquitous Black proverb admonishing the listener to be “twice as good to get half as much,” this neon scrawl challenges the givenness of the statement and its instruction: strive to meet the conditions set by structural inequality. The word “good” rarely appears undoubled in Hill’s drawings. In the small-scale drawing twice as good (2019), featured in Hill’s solo exhibition Twice as Good is Too Much at Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles, the word “good” leaps across a black field in a careful golden scratch, the artist-child’s handwriting doubled into a chorus. Twinning next to itself, goodgood filters down again through repetition into just good—thin, perfunctory, and singular.
Twice as good, half as much—simultaneously a yardstick and a mandate. Good, singular—alternately capacious, earnest, and hyperbolic. In school, goodness (good student, good speller, good with others) materializes the most boring kind of accretion: productivity, keeping time. In Hill’s universe, “good enough” is another person’s birthright. Twinned and doubled, “good” becomes twice unmeasurable, careening brightly into Black excess, futility, resignation. “Twice as good” collapses into “too much,” the dark frame of fungibility from which surplus value springs forth. If half as much is the reward for twice as good, what happens to those who do not, who cannot, strive? The platitude eats itself, dissolves into serialized oblivion before settling back into the kind of good that is wholly and unsettlingly nonspecific. Good, scribbled in Hill’s drawing, is thin, direct, and of a distantly emotional realm. The simplicity of the language Hill renders opens up a question: In what ways can violence, especially of the institutional variety, be indirectly imaged?
Essays aren’t supposed to have questions, and children and paintings are supposed to be seen and not heard. There’s a kind of jaunty humorlessness in Hill’s assemblages of scholastic surfaces. Gold stars, graphite, lined paper (sometimes layered, sometimes chewed), the ribbed and scalloped edges of a classroom bulletin board—decorate the mandate! Surface and gesture mingle interchangeably, substituting alternative propositions in place of well-trodden platitudes.
Hill’s drawings comply, but they also sulk, chewing and spitting gum and paper in unseen places. In Bulletin 1 (2019), chewing gum, epoxy resin, gold, and primary-colored classroom borders layer back on themselves into wavy zips up and down the image plane; in Composition 3 (gold star) (2019), spitballs drip, each fibrous cluster evidencing a tiny explosion, and the composition book becomes composition. Exertion—the drawn, scratched, danced, licked, and spit register of Hill’s refusal—stands in for gesture, leaving behind surfaces that bear the expressionist vestiges of a pupil’s rebellion.
The mandate to be twice as good carries within its underbelly the visceral knowledge and foretelling of what happens to those who are not good, to those who dare to transgress while also marked as social excess. Rules in the classroom are twinned with another set of rules birthed from inside the home. They turned Nat Turner into medicine. Leave your hands on the steering wheel, switch on the overhead light. Always say ‘yes ma’am’. Be home before the streetlights turn on. These kinds of rules are swallowed before one even understands the circumstances that necessitate their creation. Eat yourself lest you be eaten. Though few things are as insurmountable as exhaustion, EJ Hill complicates the act of striving.
I am an artist committed to authoring objects, images, and experiences, which elevate bodies and amplify voices that have long been rendered invisible and inaudible by oppressive social structures. Rooted in an endurance-based performance practice, my work focuses largely on challenging the social aspects and systems that construct a body. I am interested in how bodies are formed, understood, and valued within different social and cultural contexts, but more specifically, how they redefine the parameters that govern which bodies are allowed to exist freely.
Initially, performance seemed the most natural and direct way of addressing ideas pertaining to the body; however, over the years I have developed my practice to include writing, painting, sculpture, and installation. This multi-faceted methodology has provided me new ways of articulating propositions for being, while still maintaining a foundation of critique of oppressive social structures.
At its core, my current artistic output is steeped in a desire to move beyond representations of pain, violence, and struggle—aspects central to the experiences of subjugated communities, undoubtedly—and closer to more rounded, complex representations, which include the aforementioned, but also allow room for excellence, beauty, and bliss.
Makayla Bailey is a writer and curator based in New York. Bailey is currently a joint curatorial fellow at MoMA and the Studio Museum in Harlem. She is the newest member of the Compound team.